Rosalynn Carter dies aged 96, days after entering hospice care

The former first lady leaves behind her husband, four children, 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a legacy of mental health advocacy

Kelly Rissman
Sunday 19 November 2023 12:44 GMT
Former US first lady Rosalynn Carter dies aged 96

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Rosalynn Carter, former President Jimmy Carter’s wife, has died at the age of 96.

The Carter Center announced the former first lady’s death on Sunday, two days after she entered hospice care at their home in Plains, Georgia. She leaves behind her husband, four children, 22 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and a legacy of mental health advocacy.

“Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a passionate champion of mental health, caregiving, and women’s rights, passed away Sunday, Nov. 19, at 2:10 p.m. at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. She died peacefully, with family by her side,” the statement read.

The former president, 99, is also in hospice care at their home. He paid tribute to his wife in the statement, saying: “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished.

“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.”

The couple’s son Chip Carter said: “Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right. Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

Rosalynn was diagnosed with dementia in May, the Carter Center previously announced. At the time, the Center wrote that she “has been the nation’s leading mental health advocate for much of her life.”

Throughout her life, “she urged improved access to care and decreased stigma about issues surrounding mental health,” the statement continued.

Consistent with her efforts, the Center said it decided to share the family’s news in the hopes that the transparency would “increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctor’s offices around the country.”

Rosalynn Smith was born on 18 August 1927 in Plains, Georgia. As the oldest child, at the age of 13 Rosalynn helped her mother support her family after her father died, according to White House archives.

Despite her family’s hardships, she attended Georgia Southwestern College at Americus, where she met a man, who would one day become president, after her freshman year.

“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter reportedly told his mother after his first date with the then 17-year-old. A year later, in 1946, they did exactly that; the couple got married.

The pair had four children: John William Carter, James Earl Carter III, Donnel Jeffrey Carter, and Amy Lynn Carter. As Jimmy Carter worked in the Navy, the Carters moved all over the country — until his father’s death in 1953 planted them in Georgia, where he took over the family business: a peanut farm.

Less than a decade later, Jimmy entered into the political sphere, winning a seat in the Georgia Senate, becoming the state’s governor, and then, of course, earning the presidency — all with Rosalynn by his side.

She was frequently praised for her political chops. The press dubbed her “the Steel Magnolia,” referring to her graceful persona in combination with her tough inner strength.

Jimmy Carter’s White House adviser Stuart Eizenstat said she had “uncanny political instincts,” while her White House adviser Kathy Cade said, “She knew what she wanted to accomplish.

Apparently, her interest in mental health reform was inspired by talking to voters during her husband’s Georgia campaigns. PBS reported that after hearing one particular story about a mill worker caring for her child, who was suffering from mental illness, she told her husband the next day: “I want to know what you are going to do about mental health when you are governor.” Mr Carter reportedly replied: “We’re going to have the best mental health system in the country, and I’m going to put you in charge of it.”

From 1977 to 1978, she served as the Honorary Chairperson of the President’s Commission on Mental Health. And after Mr Carter’s 1980 defeat, the couple founded the Carter Center, an institution dedicated to “human rights and the alleviation of human suffering.”

Among many mental health initiatives, in 1996, the Center launched the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism, which aimed to provide journalists with the resources to cover mental health issues while reducing stigma around the topic.

After he left the Oval Office, Mr Carter remarked: “The best thing I ever had happen in my life was when she said she’d marry me.”

Tributes poured in after the news of her death.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote on X: “Rosalynn Carter was a great partner to a consequential President and helped to define the modern role of First Lady. She was gracious, warm - and determined. My thoughts are with the entire Carter family and especially with the President.”

“First Lady Rosalynn Carter dedicated her life to serving others,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wrote. “America has lost a passionate humanitarian and champion for people all over the world. My heart goes out to her entire family.”

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley also expressed his condolences. “She was an accomplished leader for mental health advocacy & habitat for humanity & so many more worthy causes,” the senator wrote. “Her devotion to her husband Pres Jimmy Carter of 77yrs is unmatched. God bless the Carter family.”

“Rosalynn Carter lived a life of service to her community and to our nation. New York joins the Carter family in mourning her loss,” New York Gov Kathy Hochul remarked.

JB Pritzker, Illinois governor, remarked that she “lived a life of service devoted to our nation. She leaves behind a legacy of grace and compassion that’s inspired generations of Americans.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said he was “Deeply saddened by the passing of Rosalynn Carter.” He called Carter a “wonderful humanitarian, she led a life of service and compassion. May God watch over President Jimmy Carter and their family during this difficult time.”

Ohio Rep Joyce Beatty remarked on her legacy: “First Lady Rosalynn Carter was a beacon of hope and light—using her platform for humanitarian causes to make our world a better place.”

New York Rep Ritchie Torres thanked Carter for her service, writing that she was “a tireless advocate for making America work for all its citizens.”

“Rosalynn Carter leaves behind a meaningful legacy not only as First Lady but as a wife and mother. We will always remember her servant’s heart and devotion to her husband, family, and country,” fellow former First Lady Melania Trump wrote.

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