Courier Herald column for the week of November 26th:
First Lady Rosalynn Carter died last week at the age of 96. She dedicated her adult life to public service which is most often viewed through the lens of her husband and true partner in life of 77 years, President Jimmy Carter. While the two worked hand in hand for over three quarters of a century, a few words have been earned about Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter on her own.
It’s somewhat ironic that we refer to the spouses of presidents with the title of “First”. The role in southern parlance is much akin to that of being a pastor’s wife. The expectations of too many is that the role requires one to be seen often and seldom heard, and even then only to echo the spouse’s message.
Mrs. Carter was certainly a compliment to the public roles of her husband of 77 years, but the two had a true partnership. Her thoughts, ideas, and strategic thinking, and actions mattered, even in an era when this was not expected (nor tolerated well by some) of a political spouse.
Shortly after the news of her passing, I was on the phone with a friend of mine, who himself was on the way to a television studio to provide commentary on her life. I have had the pleasure of meeting her several times over a couple of years at private dinners and events in Plains. The call gave us a moment to get our heads around the news, and to try to hash out what should be said about the life of a great person.
I provide that background because he asked me the clarifying question, “what should be said so that the audience understands who she really was?”. I of course rambled a bit as I do until I eventually got to my answer: She was authentic.
That word may seem at first like a platitude, but there is depth behind it. We now have a couple of generations since Mrs. Carter was our nation’s First Lady. Our pop culture now depicts politicians and their families – both in comedy and drama – as calculating individuals who are one person when the cameras are on, and become completely different people when the cameras and microphones turn off.
This was not Rosalynn Carter. There was only one of her, whether you saw her on the largest of the world’s stages or sharing barbecue sandwiches at a kitchen table in Plains. She was authentic.
And while she was quite comfortable being the partner of her husband and his causes (which in reality, were their causes), she had a couple of issues that were near and dear to her own heart, under her own brand. The two I’m most familiar with were her dedication to improving the conditions of those suffering mental health issues, and the preservation of Monarch butterflies.
The advocacy for awareness of and improvement in treatment options and access for mental health went well beyond work on committees and policy work. While it was not made obvious to me during my visits, I eventually understood by the nature of other guests I met within her circle in Plains that this was a hands-on project of hers.
She didn’t just lend her name to a cause. She rolled up her sleeves and went to work on the front lines of the issue, which included ongoing personal relationships with those needing help.
The Monarch butterflies became a cause not too different from the issue of protecting honey bees today. She had read about habitats of the butterflies being destroyed and chemicals accelerating their demise, and decided to plant a garden for them as a refuge at her home in Plains.
Working with a local expert, she decided that additional gardens would enable more people to experience the beauty of them, while also expanding their safe spaces and ease their migrations. There are now nearly 400 of these gardens in the U.S. and abroad.
The two causes – seemingly quite different – came from the same heart. Whether a caterpillar or someone suffering with mental health issues, Mrs. Carter understood that a safe time and space was needed to become the beautiful butterfly contained within, and that the path ahead required a hospitable habitat for stops along the journey.
Rosalynn Carter joined her husband in home hospice care for only a week, departing this world before him. It’s the only story of her that I have where she went first.
Her life was one where others – whether it was a President or the least among us – were always put first. We are all much better because of her presence, her dedication, her selflessness, and her authentic kindness.