Rosalynn Carter, former first lady, dies at age 96

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has died at the age of 96, the Carter Center announced Sunday. 

The Carter Center said she died “peacefully, with family by her side” at 2:10 p.m. ET on Sunday, Nov. 19, at her home in Plains, Georgia.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement. “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.”

First lady Rosalynn Carter is seen in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, July 23, 1979.
First lady Rosalynn Carter is seen in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, July 23, 1979.

Diana Walker/Getty Images

The former first lady had been diagnosed with dementia and continued to live at home in Plains, Georgia, with her husband, her family said in May. They said last week that she had entered home hospice care.

As a close confidante and trusted adviser to her husband, Rosalynn Carter played an active role in the White House and championed causes such as research into mental health. Though she grew up as a small-town girl who never planned on a public life, she understood the power of political office and its potential to change the world.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter had a partnership unlike any other known at the time for a president and first lady. Though other first ladies privately advised their husbands, the Carters’ bond was deep. Rosalynn Carter was willing to speak her mind to her husband, and he valued her advice. She sat in on Cabinet meetings — a first — and took the heat for it.

“Jimmy Carter has always taught me you do the best you can and you don’t worry about the criticism,” she told CBS News’ Bob Schieffer in October 1980. “It does not matter what you do. It does not matter. I could stay here and pour tea and be a hostess and do nothing else and I would be criticized, or I could have one project — it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t matter what he does — we’re going to be criticized. You just have to have confidence.”

Born in Plains on August 18, 1927, the oldest of four children, Rosalynn Smith started dating Jimmy Carter when she was 18. 

“The first time I had a date with him I came home and mother said, ‘You know I like Jimmy, he has the nicest smile,'” she once told CBS News’ Ed Rabel. “So he’s had a nice smile a long time.”

US President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dance at a White House Congressional Ball, Washington
President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter dance at a White House Congressional Ball, in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 13, 1978 .

Marion S. Trikosko / Getty Images

The couple married a year later, in 1946. Jimmy Carter was in the Navy, and his job allowed them to see the world. Their three sons were each born in a different place. Rosalynn Carter loved the life and didn’t want to return to her small town. 

“I think I was away from home and very independent and had three little babies, and I thought that if I came home I would have my mother and Jimmy’s mother to tell me what to do,” she told Rabel.

But when Jimmy Carter’s father died in 1953, they returned to Plains to run the family peanut business. The couple had bigger plans, however, and Jimmy Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1970. Rosalynn Carter campaigned by his side and on her own.

That continued in the 1976 presidential campaign, and she became his eyes and ears in places he wasn’t able to get to. They’d meet in Plains every week and compare notes. They’d had their fourth child, Amy, by now, and she was often on the campaign trail with them.

“Every time we came home, we liked to go out to the farm and walk in the fields, and it gave us two or three hours just to talk about, to visit,” Rosalynn Carter told CBS News. “We talked about the campaign and the things he saw and the things I saw and how we wanted it to go and how it was going and so forth. I could tell him about the impressions I had gotten, I had gotten about different states.”

After they moved into the White House, she continued her role as a sounding board for her husband and used the power of the first lady’s office to promote better understanding of the mentally ill, one of her long-term causes. She served as the honorary chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

She also continued to travel as first lady, visiting Latin America as the president’s emissary, and acknowledging with a smile how unusual it was.

“I’m going to convey all this information I have to Jimmy. As a matter of fact, I look forward to consulting with him on a regular basis,” she said to laughter in 1977.

Rosalynn Carter and Jimmy Carter in 2008
Former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn Carter make a surprise appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Denver,  Aug. 25, 2008. 

AP Photo/Ron Edmonds

After leaving Washington in 1980, the Carters set upon the next phase of their lives with characteristic zeal. They built the Carter Center in Atlanta, which promotes peace and conflict resolution. Their projects ranged from breaking ground on new homes for the poor through Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. to visiting far-flung places around the world in pursuit of peace.

President Clinton awarded the Carters the Medal of Freedom in 1999. The couple’s close partnership — the longest presidential marriage in the nation’s history — lasted more than three-quarters of a century. They celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary on July 7, 2023.

Rosalynn Carter spoke at the funeral of her fellow first lady and friend Betty Ford on July 12, 2011, and described her in terms that might well apply to herself: “Isn’t this the most appropriate description of Betty? Someone who was willing to do things a bit differently than they had been done before? Someone who had the courage and grace to fight fear, stigma and prejudice wherever she encountered it.”

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