PLAINS, Ga. — Linda Campbell decorated the Lions Club Christmas tree in her small hometown like she would any other Thanksgiving week, but this was no ordinary Monday in late November.
Across the Plains, neighbors mourned the death of their matriarch, former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter, while worrying about their patriarch, former President Jimmy Carter.
“We’ve been praying for them every day for a long time,” said Campbell, 75, as another longtime Plains resident, Lee Johnson, lowered the American and Georgia flags that flew in front of the city’s business district.
Rosalynn Carter died at home on Sunday after her physical health rapidly deteriorated as she lived with dementia in recent months. She was 96 years old. The 99-year-old former president has been under palliative care at home since February.
It was unclear Monday whether Jimmy Carter will be able to attend public services for his wife next week in Sumter County and Atlanta.
For months, the townspeople anticipated losing him first. Now, with Rosalynn’s passing, they and the extended Carter family are embracing the opportunity to celebrate a woman who was so often associated with her husband but who blazed her own trail locally and globally.
“She was an incredibly humble person – the epitome of grace,” said Tim Buchanan, Rosalynn’s cousin, whose mother remained close to her throughout her life. “Her fingerprints are all over the community.”
Jill Stuckey, a close friend of the Carters since moving to south Georgia in the 1990s, called the couple “the lifeblood of Plains,” a town of about 600 people. It’s about the same size as when the future president and first lady were born here in the 1920s, married here in 1946 and ran their presidential campaign at the old Plains train station in 1976.
“It was amazing to see the two of them do all these things,” recalls Campbell, who grew up with the Carters’ oldest children. “It was exciting here too. When they were at the White House, we had tour buses with people from all over the world coming to see where Mr. Jimmy and Mrs. Jimmy came from.
Perhaps more surprising than a presidential couple emerging from such a small place is that they returned after Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980, returning to the same house they lived in when he was first elected to the state Senate in 1962.
“I was a little surprised when I was 18 and I wondered why,” said LeAnne Smith, Rosalynn’s niece, who still lives in the house where her aunt grew up. Smith figured they would “at least go to Atlanta,” where they opened the Carter Center for their post-White House humanitarian work and democracy advocacy.
“In the long run,” Smith said, “I think coming back and living here was, you know, their sanctuary and their place of peace and their place to rest and enjoy being home.”
Disappointed and even depressed by their early departure from Washington, the Carters returned to local life. They joined Maranatha Baptist Church, where Rosalynn Carter’s final funeral will be held next Wednesday, November 29, after having been members of Plains Baptist Church for most of their marriage.
Campbell, who attends church in nearby Americus, noted that Rosalynn was instrumental in establishing a community Thanksgiving food distribution led by the Maranatha congregation. The last annual event was held the same weekend Rosalynn died.
On Sunday night, hours after the former first lady’s death, many members of the community gathered at the Plains Methodist Church, where Rosalynn grew up and where the Carters were married, for a Thanksgiving week service.
“More than 400 people got food” this weekend, Campbell said. “She would have been proud.”
Jeff Campbell, who helped his wife Linda decorate the public Christmas tree, recalled his years working for the National Park Service, which maintained Carter’s historic sites and residential properties that will one day be part of public exhibits.
“She was always very kind,” he said, although he laughed at her exacting standards for the appearance of properties.
“Sometimes we had a new guy who thought he knew more than Ms. Rosalynn,” Campbell said, noting that Rosalynn was an accomplished gardener. “I would tell him, ‘Do it the way Ms. Rosalynn wants and everything will be fine.’”
Stuckey said Rosalynn has always balanced life as a global figure, traveling to dozens of countries as part of the Carter Center’s work and being an avid participant in small-town life.
“I would hear someone coming and it was President and Mrs. Carter taking a walk,” Stuckey recalled. “Mrs. Carter would sometimes come by herself and, you know, just want to know what was going on in town. They would be away for a while and wanted to know how everyone was doing.”
As deep as the Carters’ family and community ties are in Sumter County, Rosalynn didn’t distinguish between longtime residents and those who came to Plains later.
Phillip Kurland has been in Plains for about 30 years — less than a third of Rosalynn Carter’s life. He and his wife opened a political souvenir shop downtown.
“They would both come in” during their regular walks or bike rides, he said. The former president always greeted customers, “but she would like to stay and have real conversations with everyone.”
Andrea Walker, another Plains transplant, became friends with the Carters when she and her late husband built a house that bordered “the Carter compound,” as locals call it.
Rosalynn found ways to get around the trap of the six-foot fence and Secret Service protection, sometimes escaping without agents knowing, Walker recalled. “She would jump in her golf cart, come over, hit it and go in,” she said. Other times, agents warned neighbors.
“We would start serving her margaritas; we knew that was what she wanted,” Walker said. “She was climbing out of the pool straight onto the frozen rocks.”
It’s obvious in Plains that “everything is named after Jimmy,” but Buchanan said “we’re making progress” in establishing a more official presence for Rosalynn. Along with markers outside her childhood garden and the former Smith home, where LeAnne Smith still lives, a “Butterfly Trail” includes small gardens around the city, a tribute to the former first lady’s love of butterflies.
Because the former first lady — and eventually the former president — will be buried in Plains, town residents said, there will always be an attraction for foreigners to help support the town that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter made famous.
Said Stuckey: “They were thinking about the economic development of the Plains and tourism even after their deaths.”