FILE – In this Feb. 8, 2017 photo, former President Jimmy Carter, right, and his wife Rosalynn arrive for a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a solar panel project on farmland he owns in their hometown of Plains, Ga. Jimmy and Rosalynn are celebrating their 77th wedding anniversary, Friday, July 7, 2023. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
ATLANTA (AP) – Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter will mark their 77th wedding anniversary with a quiet Friday at their south Georgia home, extending their record as the longest-married first couple ever as both non-immigrants face significant health challenges.
The 39th president is 98 and has been around home hospice care since February. The former first lady is 95 and have dementia. The Carter family has not released details on the condition of either Jimmy or Rosalynn Carter, but has said they are both enjoying themselves time with each other and an influx of family members, along with occasional visits from close friends, in recent months.
“Looking back at their legacy, it’s been really wonderful to see the outpouring of support and respect and love,” grandson Jason Carter said recently. “This word love is really what defines their personal relationship for sure, but also the way they approach this world.”
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been on the American and international stage together for half a century. What they described as “full partnership” began years earlier in Carter’s family farm business before his political career and their decades of global humanitarian work since he left the White House in 1981 and established Carter Center the following year.
Through the center, Jimmy Carter conducted numerous diplomatic missions and worked with the blessings of his successors in the Oval Office, although he sometimes rankled them. The former president and center staff have monitored at least 114 elections in Asia, Africa and the Americas since 1989. They recently turned their efforts toward American elections.
Among their public health outreach activities, the center’s Guinea worm eradication program has nearly conquered the water-borne parasite that was once widespread in the developing world. Known cases numbered in the millions in the mid-1980s, when Jimmy Carter set a goal of eradicating Guinea worm disease. There were fewer than two dozen cases in 2022 and as of earlier this spring, the center had not yet documented a case in 2023.
Rosalynn Carter, meanwhile, took her signature policy issue — mental health treatment and advocacy — beyond the White House, establishing an annual fellowship for journalists to concentrate on mental health reporting. She also spoke widely for better services for caregivers, a focus the Carter family highlighted earlier this year when they announced the former first lady had dementia.
In addition to the Carter Center, the couple became the most famous volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, the international outfit that builds, repairs and renovates homes for low-income people. The Carters first volunteered for Habitat in 1984, taking a bus from Georgia to the New York City job site with other volunteers. They would soon begin hosting annual builds bearing the former president’s name and donning helmets with volunteers in the late 80s and early 90s.
“Everything they’ve done is really just an extension of what they started and who they were in the White House,” said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic Party chairwoman who got her start in politics on Carter’s presidential campaign . “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are just good, decent people.”
The Carters were married on July 7, 1946, in their hometown of Plains. But their relationship extends to the cradle.
Jimmy Carter’s parents were friends of Rosalynn’s parents. The future president’s mother was the nurse who delivered Eleanor Rosalynn Smith at the Smith family home in 1927. “Miss Lillian” returned to the Smith home a few days later with her oldest son, preschooler Jimmy, to meet the new baby. The Carter family moved to a farm in nearby Archery, just outside Plains, not long after, although the Carter children and Smith children would continue to see each other at school in Plains.
Rosalynn would become a close friend of Jimmy’s sister Ruth, who played the role of matchmaker during one of her older brother’s visits home from the US Naval Academy. Jimmy and Rosalynn married shortly after he graduated. They left the Plains with no intention of returning other than as visitors. But in 1953, James Earl Carter Sr. died. and left behind the family farming and warehousing business. Without consulting Rosalynn, the young lieutenant decided to leave the Navy and move his young family back to Georgia.
The future president, who became an advocate for women’s rights and nominated more women and non-whites to federal posts than any of his predecessors, later called it inconceivable that he did not consult his wife. Yet over the years that followed, Rosalynn Carter became a key partner in the family business.
“I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice on things,” she told The Associated Press in a joint interview with her husband ahead of their 75th anniversary in 2021.
It continued in politics as Rosalynn Carter proved herself a skilled campaigner and powerful political advocate in her own right, overcoming her youthful shyness, which the former president has depicted in her writing and painting.
“My wife is much more political,” he said in the interview.
In addition to their longevity, both Carters credit their long marriage to open communication and their shared Christian faith.
“Every day there must be reconciliation,” the former president said in 2021. “We will not go to bed with some remaining differences between us.”
The pair have also had hobbies together for years – sometimes even in competition. Before becoming frail, they enjoyed playing tennis, hiking and biking together. Both prolific writers, they sometimes ran to finish drafts of books. Fishing also often involved competition, and they continued to fish into their 90s on their Plains property. They added bird watching in recent decades as they slowed down physically.
For all their shared joys, Rosalynn Carter added another component to a successful marriage. “Everyone needs a little space,” she said. “It’s really important.”