As Jimmy Carter Turns 99, He’s Still Full of Surprises

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Former president Jimmy Carter and ex-first lady Rosalynn Carter made a rare public appearance at the Peanut Festival parade in Plains, Ga., on Sept. 23.

PLAINS, Ga. – The crowds gathered in Jimmy Carter’s tiny hometown last weekend knew the former president hadn’t been seen in public this year. After seven months in hospice, on the eve of his 99th birthday, they knew he could no longer climb the steps to a balcony overlooking the annual Plains Peanut Festival.

So when a black Chevy Suburban driven by a Secret Service agent slowly turned onto Main Street last Saturday morning, there were gasps, and then cheers.

There in the back seat was Carter, holding hands with Rosalynn, his wife of 77 years. The waves of applause only stopped when a “Happy Birthday” serenade began.

“I’m overwhelmed,” said Esther Rechenmacher, 93, who said she would cherish what she expects will be her last glimpse of Carter.

The drive through downtown Plains was just the latest surprise from Carter, who has already lived longer than any other former president, surpassing George H.W. Bush, who passed away at 94. He has witnessed the election of seven successors and outlived two: Bush and Ronald Reagan.

On Sunday, Carter plans to have a low-key birthday with Rosalynn at the Plains home they built in 1961 and where they spend most days sitting together. But publicity around his milestone is expected to draw more visitors to this tiny town and its National Park Service sites that include Carter’s boyhood home that had no running water or electricity when he was a child, and the train depot that served as Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign headquarters.

Aimee Burgamy, an Atlanta schoolteacher, sees Carter as a living link to a bygone era in America. “The politics around here are not Jimmy Carter’s politics anymore,” she said. “But everyone came out for him. We love him.”

Carter is a Democrat, while many in Plains are Republican, including the longtime mayor, L. E. “Boze” Godwin III.

Godwin, 80, calls Carter “an honest man, a very intelligent man.” He said their differing political views never meant they couldn’t work together to improve the town. He has known Carter nearly all his life; the former president was his Boy Scout troop leader. After Carter served in the U.S. Navy, he came home in 1953 and Godwin remembers seeing him sell peanuts out of the back of his truck.

Carter had a meteoric rise from peanut farmer to Georgia governor to U.S. president. When he left the White House in 1981, many locals were grateful, if surprised, that he returned to his rural hometown of 700 people.

But even for a life marked by the unexpected, Carter’s appearance last weekend stunned many.

In February, doctors told Carter’s family he would probably not live more than a week. Yet, he is still watching the news and “Law and Order” on TV and talks to family and close friends about current issues and past events.

He tracks the 2024 election and watches his beloved Atlanta Braves, who just made the playoffs.

Earlier this month, President Biden personally sent word to Carter that he had moved to protect millions of acres in Alaska and canceled oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“Biden knows how much this means to him,” said his son James Earl “Chip” Carter III, who took the White House call.

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
James Earl “Chip” Carter III, with wife Becky, jokes with Mr. Peanut. They are standing in front of a 1946 Ford given to the Carters on their 75th wedding anniversary by Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.

Jimmy Carter has described the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act as one of the most important achievements of his presidency and was angry when Donald Trump opened the Arctic refuge to oil drilling. More recently, at the age of 97, Carter filed a lawsuit to block the construction of a road through the Alaska wilderness.

Now, Carter has good and bad days and his health can vary by the moment, his relatives said. His body shows his age. He is frustrated that he cannot swim anymore and he needs a wheelchair to get around.

“He told me he has been successful at everything in life, but he can’t figure out how to die,” Chip Carter said.

On Saturday, Carter looked frail as he rode past the festival crowd with Rosalynn. He held her hand in the back seat of the SUV as she waved to the crowd.

“We love you!” many hollered, as the Suburban drove downtown and then headed back to the Carters’ home, just down the road.

Jan Williams, a retired elementary schoolteacher who was riding atop a massive truckload of peanuts, said there is nobody like Carter. Though he once was the most powerful man in the world, she said, “he can shell peanuts just like everyone else here.”

In 2015, after doctors told him his melanoma had spread to his brain and liver, a usually fatal condition, Carter seemed unfazed. “I’m perfectly at ease with whatever comes,” he said at a news conference. Then he smiled and added, “I’m looking forward to a new adventure.”

Yet eight years later, and after several falls and new ailments – and even after declaring he would no longer go to the hospital and was in hospice care – he keeps going.

“He thinks about Rosalynn” and doesn’t want to leave her, said Becky Carter, Chip’s wife. She said the former president is keenly aware of his wife’s dementia, which was publicly announced earlier this year.

Kim Fuller, Carter’s niece, said her uncle deeply believes in the importance of showing up.

“There is just something inside him – he goes to enormous lengths to be there in person,” Fuller said, recalling how he cut short a visit with Pope John Paul II to be with her father and his brother, Billy Carter, when he was sick; Billy Carter died of pancreatic cancer at age 51 in 1988.

“I think he’s just not ready to stop,” Carter’s niece said.

He still wakes around 5 a.m., a time when his memory is particularly sharp. Chip Carter said his father recently recounted his 1978 state visit to France with French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in astounding detail and “ended this 20-minute conversation with, ‘And, his wife was a really good dancer!'”

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Kim Fuller, Jimmy Carter’s niece, sometimes acted as the substitute teacher for a Sunday school class, replacing her uncle when needed.

Carter has been asking about a Habitat for Humanity project that will begin on his birthday in Charlotte, where more than 1,000 volunteers will join country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to build affordable homes, carrying on work that the Carters have done for years.

Birthday wishes are flooding into the Carter Center, too. Thousands have sent photos, pictures and good wishes, including Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and the Indigo Girls, a duo of Georgia-native musicians.

To do his part to honor Carter, George McAfee, 79, planned to be out early on Sunday picking up trash along the half-mile route from Carter’s home to downtown.

“You might say, Jimmy Carter is Plains,” said McAfee. Now retired, he built mobile homes that many in the area live in, and was touched when several years ago the Carters stopped to speak to him. “Jimmy (BEG ITAL)is(END ITAL) this town. He’s the main man.”

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
George McAfee, 79, picks up trash as part of his morning routine.