Former President Jimmy Carter emerged from hospice care to join some of his successors and every living presidential spouse on Tuesday to honor Rosalynn Carter, his wife and partner of more than three-quarters of a century and the nation’s first lady from 1977 to 1981.
Mr. Carter, who turned 99 last month and has rarely been seen in public since entering hospice care in February, made the 140-mile journey from the couple’s home in Plains, Ga., to Atlanta for a tribute at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University. President Biden, former President Bill Clinton and all five living first ladies attended as well.
Mr. Carter was brought into the church in a wheelchair as the crowd of mourners looked on with anticipation, catching their first glimpse of him in many months. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie with a blanket wrapped over his legs. His face was pale, and he did not make eye contact with the many relatives and presidential family members seated nearby. His daughter, Amy Carter, sat next to him holding his hand.
“He’s coming to the end, and he’s very, very physically diminished,” Jason Carter, one of the former president’s grandsons and the chairman of the Carter Center board, said in an interview before the service. “But I think he was proud and happy that he was there for her till the very end, and he wasn’t going to miss this for anything.”
Still, the concern for his grandfather now that his wife is gone was clear in Mr. Carter’s voice. “She was the rock for him,” he said. “He has been this moral rock for so many people, but she really was that rock for him. He’s glad he’s not going to miss it, but we’re all worried about him.”
Mrs. Carter, who was suffering from dementia, died at 96 last week at the family’s modest ranch-style house in Plains just a few months after she and her husband had celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary, making them the longest-enduring presidential couple in American history. Frail but alert and smiling, the two made their last public appearance together in September when they were driven around the Plains Peanut Festival.
Born at her family’s house in Plains, the tiny town where she would live most of her life, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith as a young girl might have been surprised at the star-studded turnout expected to salute her at the end. Her father drove a school bus, owned an auto repair shop and ran a farm, while her mother sold milk from their one cow, worked in the school lunchroom and later joined the post office.
Rosalynn Carter, as she became known after marrying her childhood friend’s older brother, never forgot her humble roots, even as she made her way to the White House, traveled the world representing her country, pushed to improve mental health services and transformed the role of first lady. After Mr. Carter lost re-election, the two returned to the small house they had built in 1961 and focused on philanthropic activities for most of the last four decades.
Her grandson said her work to foster understanding of mental illness was her proudest accomplishment. “The most lasting legacy will be her fight against the ancient stigma around mental illness,” Jason Carter said. “Even my children can see how far we’ve come in the last five years, and then you think about how far we’ve come in the last 50. She was so far ahead of her time on that issue.”
In addition to Mr. Biden and Mr. Clinton, the attendees at Tuesday’s service included Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff; Jill Biden, the current first lady; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; three other former first ladies, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump; Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia’s first lady, Marty Kemp; and Mayor Andre Dickens of Atlanta.
None of the high-profile attendees were among the invited speakers. The ceremony reflected Mrs. Carter’s taste for simple elegance over modern glitz. Her grandchildren served as honorary pallbearers, with remarks or readings from her son James Earl Carter III, known as Chip; her daughter, Amy Carter; one of her grandsons; and three of her great-grandchildren.
The Rev. Mark Westmoreland, the pastor of Glenn Memorial, and Tony Lowden, the personal pastor of Mr. and Mrs. Carter, will address the service, and tributes will be delivered by Jason Carter; Kathryn Cade, a longtime aide and friend of Mrs. Carter’s; and Judy Woodruff, the former anchor of “PBS NewsHour.”
Members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, David Osborne, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood were tapped to offer musical selections.
Mrs. Carter will later be taken back to Plains, where on Wednesday after a funeral service at Maranatha Baptist Church, she will be buried at the Carter Home and Garden, part of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. Mr. Carter plans to be laid to rest next to her when the time comes.
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