Rosalynn Carter’s Final Journey Highlights the Touchstones of Her Life

Matt McClain/The Washington Post
Signs on the grounds of the medical center in Americus pay tribute to the former first lady.

AMERICUS, Ga. – The casket bearing former first lady Rosalynn Carter, a globally known humanitarian who wanted “to make the world a kinder place,” started a slow journey through her home state of Georgia on Monday as her family and the country began saying goodbye.

A motorcade left Phoebe Sumter Medical Center in Americus amid the morning chill while relatives and members of the public watched somberly. It arrived a short time later at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, where a crowd of about 250 people was waiting. Students held up signs thanking her as wreaths of white flowers were laid by a bronze statue of her sitting on a bench.

“The institution was very important to Mrs. Carter,” said university president Neal Weaver, who stood in the cold with the students, faculty members, locals and even visitors from out of state. “It was a door opener to life beyond Plains, to the rest of the world.”

Carter, who was 96 when she died Nov. 19, is being remembered with three days of tributes for the work she did alongside her husband. She was seen as an equal partner, first for the one term of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and then for decades after as an advocate for mental health, caregiving and other issues that they championed together.

Those causes included building houses for the poor and eradicating disease in some of the world’s most impoverished countries.

Yet after their global travels, the couple always returned to Georgia. Their hometown of Plains is just 10 miles up the road from Americus, and they often visited the university and the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving that she founded – where a display about her legacy explains that she became a caregiver at 12 years old when her father was dying of cancer.

The Carters typically asked people they met on campus about their lives and families, Weaver said. “She saw what this place had meant for her and what it means for others growing up in small towns.”

From Americus, the black hearse and accompanying vehicles turned north for a 140-mile trip to Atlanta and the Carter Presidential Library and Museum. The former first lady will lie in repose there until a tribute service on Tuesday in the Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden are scheduled to be among the dignitaries attending.

Well before the motorcade arrived, staffers planted signs to guide visitors: “Flower drop-off.” A huge number of mourners is expected during the four hours designated Monday evening for the public to pay their respects.

Library and museum director Meredith Evans noted that people still adore Carter, who transformed the role of president’s wife from primarily a figurehead to a policy shaper commanding her own section of the White House.

It was Rosalynn who launched the Office of the First Lady in the East Wing – juggling projects in Washington while advocating for human rights on trips overseas. And it was Rosalynn who pushed for equality and mental wellness when those topics were still taboo, Evans added.

“She’s just a caring person,” Evans said, “and she put that into action.”

The first moment of ceremony came at 3:15 p.m. after the hearse pulled into the complex’s front circle and Carter’s casket was brought out, covered with brightly colored sunflowers and red and peach-colored roses. Each flag in the Circle of Flags, representing the 50 states, was then lowered to half-staff, and an armed forces escort, representing every branch of the military, carried the casket into the lobby.

The reminiscences offered during brief remarks revealed a trailblazer’s mettle and character.

She was “inclusive, tough, persuasive and competitive and led by example,” said John Hardman, former chief executive of the Carter Center, which the Carters founded after his presidency to advance peace and health worldwide. (The couple was famously frugal, and Hardman shared how they would help to save money when they came to Atlanta for monthly meetings. After working late into the night, they’d sleep in a Murphy bed at the center.)

Paige Alexander, the center’s current leader, remembered how Carter’s office there was filled with photographs of her children, 11 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren – as well as other first ladies from around the globe. But across from her desk was a 1979 photo showing women protesting the equal rights amendment outside the White House.

“I asked her why she kept it there, and she said, ‘To remind me that there is still a lot of work left to do.’ And she did the work,” Alexander said.

On Wednesday, Carter will return home to Plains a final time, for her funeral at the Baptist church where she and Jimmy Carter long worshiped and where he taught Sunday school. Her husband of 77 years, who is in home hospice care in Plains, hopes to be at both services along with their four children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Emma Hall, a retired school paraprofessional from Plains, said she felt compelled to come to the morning ceremony at Georgia Southwestern. “I almost feel like part of the [Carter] family,” she said. She would see Carter around Plains and followed with admiration her work on far bigger stages.

“I always felt like she was looking out for the nation but always looking out for us, too,” Hall said. “She never forgot about us.”

Fritz Larson and Ron Akerman also were on hand to pay tribute to both of the Carters.

“I was brought up Republican so wasn’t a big fan when he was in the White House,” said Larson, who made the trek to Americus from Jacksonville, Fla., to witness a noteworthy moment in history. “But look at their amazing humanitarian efforts afterwards. … They’re not out there playing golf.”

Akerman, a retired schoolteacher from Americus, wanted to pay his respects despite the chill.

“They’ve been such a wonderful part of Sumter County for so many years,” he said, recalling seeing the Carters at an after-church lunch and even shopping at a local Walmart. “There they were, just shopping and saying ‘Merry Christmas’ to everyone. That’s the kind of people they are.”