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Rosalynn Carter, Former First Lady Who Championed Mental Health and Humanitarian Causes, Dies at 96

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, the devoted wife of the nation’s 39th president and a tireless advocate for mental health care, has died.

The Carter Center confirmed that she died Sunday morning at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96.

The former first lady and former President Jimmy Carter were married for 77 years. She and the former president had four children, 11 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Jimmy Carter said in a statement from the Carter Center. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Throughout the political career of her husband, Jimmy Carter, Rosalynn Carter was his most fervent supporter. She campaigned aggressively for him, energizing supporters and once admitted being more adamant about winning than he was.

After her husband was elected president in 1976, Carter transformed the role of first lady into a full-time job. 

She was the first presidential spouse to set up an office in the East Wing and hire a full staff. Many recalled Rosalynn Carter carrying a brief case filled with papers to the office every day. 

She was a trusted adviser to the president, a participant in foreign and domestic affairs and often set up weekly meetings with Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office,  Kate Anderson Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies,” told USA TODAY in 2018

Carter traveled the world, promoting her own platform of improving mental health care and her husband’s position on human rights. She lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted legal gender equality to women and men. 

Former colleagues, friends and observers described her as genuine, warm and selfless. Throughout much of her life, she epitomized the modern working mom and wife. 

Brower said Carter cared more about helping people than materialistic things. 

“I think she will be remembered as a strong, tough, disciplined woman who also is very kind and had a lot of empathy for other people,” Brower said.

Carter, 96, entered hospice care Friday after it was revealed she was diagnosed with dementia in May.

Jimmy Carter entered hospice care in February after a series of short hospital stays, and their grandson, Jason Carter, told USA TODAY in September that his grandparents were nearing an end.

“They are together. They are at home. They’re in love, and I don’t think anyone gets more than that. I mean, it’s a perfect situation for this time in their lives,” Jason Carter said in September.

The Carters both grew up in the small town of Plains.

Rosalynn Carter was the eldest of four children who, after her father died when she was 13, had to care for her younger siblings and help with housework while her mother went to work. 

The family struggled to make ends meet, but Carter completed high school and went on to attend Georgia Southwestern College.

In 1945, she began dating Jimmy Carter, who was home from the U.S. Navy. In 1946, the couple married. 

Jimmy Carter’s career in the Navy kept the family on the move. Their three sons were all born on different naval ports in Virginia, Hawaii and Connecticut. Their daughter was later born in Plains. 

During her husband’s tenure as president, the former first lady was passionate about developing solutions for problems facing the elderly and brought groups together for the White House roundtable discussion on aging.

Kathy Cade, who served as special projects director to the first lady, said Carter was inspired to pursue mental health reform after watching a distant cousin suffer mental illness when she was a child. 

When Jimmy Carter ran for governor of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter discovered how public programs for people with mental illness were abysmal, leaving families struggling to find care. 

In 1977, Carter became honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

The position allowed Carter to continue her work in ending the mental crisis that she started as first lady of Georgia. 

She led efforts to pass the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980, which provides grants to community mental health centers. 

Carter also lobbied for immunizing children against preventable diseases while her husband was Georgia governor and president.

She partnered with Betty Bumpers, first lady of Arkansas from 1971 to 1975, to promote vaccinations as a routine health practice. In 1981, 95% of children starting school were immunized against measles and other diseases.

When the Carters left the White House, they returned to Plains and continued to make a difference. 

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center – a non-profit that strives to improve the quality of life, alleviate suffering and advance human rights through its programs. 

Through the Carter Center, the former president and first lady have traveled the world working to stop Guinea worm disease, increase agricultural production in Africa, and advocate for human rights. 

Carter created the Carter Center’s Mental Health program to continue fighting the stigma and discrimination of people with mental illnesses.

She also established Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to encourage in-depth reporting on mental health. 

Outside of the Carter Center, Carter sat on a number of boards for organizations over the years including the Plains Better Hometown Program, Plains Historic Preservation Trust and the Gannett Board of Directors. 

In 1984, Carter’s autobiography “First Lady from Plains” was published. 

Matt Costello, historian for the White House Historical Association, said the Carters accomplished so much post-presidency that it seems to overshadow their time in the White House. 

“They have created this incredible legacy of promoting human rights,” Costello said. “Oftentimes presidents and first ladies slowly fade into retirement (when they leave office).”

Elder years

Rosalynn Carter remained active into her elder years, traveling with her husband, going to church, managing The Carter Center in Atlanta and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity.

The Carters lived modestly in the one-story ranch in Plains that they built in the 1960s. 

“I would never call them relaxed,” Brower said. “They are the most active 90-something people you would ever meet.”

Cade said Carter viewed her role as first lady as an opportunity to make an impact on the world. 

Carter and Cade have remained friends and colleagues over the years and Cade currently serves as vice chair of the Carter Center. Cade also co-authored Carter’s book “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.” 

“She is someone who has enormous compassion for people who are suffering,” Cade said. “And she is not one to just sort of have that compassion. She is always driven to take action.” 

The Carters became champions for Habitat for Humanity in the 1980s.

In 1984, they gained recognition for starting the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, which is now the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. 

The week-long home building effort launched in Manhattan but over the years expanded to other cities and other countries. Now some 1,200 volunteers join the Carters each year for the project, said Jonathan Reckford, International CEO for Habitat for Humanity. 

Reckford, who joined Habitat for Humanity in 2005, described Rosalynn Carter as an extraordinary leader and a hard worker who dedicated her life to helping others. 

Reckford said Carter loved getting to know the families who benefited from Habitat for Humanity projects. The Carters often hand out autographed bibles to the families, Reckford said.

“I think her legacy will be felt in so many ways,” Reckford said. “She brings such compassion along with that fiery desire to fight to make things better.”

Source : USA Today