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Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and tireless humanitarian, dies at 96

Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and humanitarian who championed mental health care, provided constant political counsel to her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and modeled graceful longevity for the nation, died Sunday at her home in Plains, Georgia, according to the Carter Center.

Carter was 96. She had entered hospice care in her home on Friday.

In a statement, former President Carter said: “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.”

Rosalynn Carter was widely regarded for her political shrewdness, drawing particular praise for her keen electoral instincts, down-to-earth appeal, and work on behalf of the White House, including serving as an envoy to Latin America.

She devoted herself to several social causes in the course of her public life, including programs that supported health care resources, human rights, social justice and the needs of elderly people.

“Twenty-five years ago, we did not dream that people might someday be able actually to recover from mental illnesses,” Carter said at a mental health symposium in 2003. “Today it is a very real possibility.”

“For one who has worked on mental health issues as long as I have,” she added, “this is a miraculous development and an answer to my prayers.”

First lady Rosalynn Carter greets people at a campaign event in New Hampshire on Oct. 24, 1979.Diana Walker / Getty Images file

In late May, the Carter Center, the couple’s human rights group, announced that she had been diagnosed with dementia. “She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones,” the organization said in a statement.

Bess Truman, the wife of President Harry Truman, is the only first lady to have lived longer, according to the National First Ladies Library. (Bess Truman died in 1982, at 97.) Jimmy and Rosalynn were the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history.

The Carters earned admiration for their humanitarian projects after they left the White House. They were closely linked with Habitat for Humanity, considered by the charity to be “tireless advocates, active fundraisers and some of our best hands-on construction volunteers.”

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on Aug. 18, 1927, the first of four children reared by Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Rosalynn’s father died when she was 13, and her mother became a dressmaker to provide for her family.

The loss of her father at such a young age forced Rosalynn to assume additional responsibilities alongside her mother. But the family unit managed to stay afloat.

Rosalynn finished high school and enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College. In 1945, following her freshman year, she went on a date with Jimmy Carter, a childhood friend of the family who was home from the U.S. Naval Academy.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, dance at the annual Congressional Christmas Ball at the White House on Dec. 13, 1978.Ira Schwarz / AP file

“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after their first outing, according to a biography compiled by the White House Historical Association.

They were married the following year, on July 7, 1946. They relocated to Norfolk, Virginia — Jimmy’s first duty station after graduation. But life as a Navy family meant they had to move frequently.

Their four children were each born in different states: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut, and Amy Lynn — their only daughter — in Georgia.

Jimmy’s father died in 1953, sending the couple back to Plains to run the family peanut business. Rosalynn soon started working for the enterprise full time, assisting with accounting and other front-office functions.

Jimmy decided to launch a political career in the early 1960s, winning a Georgia state Senate seat in 1962. 

He unsuccessfully sought the governorship in 1966; during that campaign, Rosalynn learned more about the challenges facing people with mental illnesses, as she recounted to Time magazine in 2010.

“The more I thought about it and found out about it, the more I thought it was just a terrible situation with no attention,” she said.

Rosalynn Carter works at a Habitat for Humanity event in Benton Harbor, Mich., on June 21, 2005.R. Diamond / WireImage file

Rosalynn helped lay the foundation for her husband’s winning bid for the Georgia governorship in 1970 and, six years later, advised her husband’s grassroots presidential campaign. Political reporters took notice of her vivacity on the trail.

“Rosalynn Carter, 49, the candidate’s wife,…

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