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PLAINS, Ga. — Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, who died this month at age 96, was buried Wednesday in Plains, Georgia, the small farming town where she met Jimmy Carter as a toddler and married him as a teenager returned to the White House.
She was remembered for her devotion to faith, family and public service at a simple, private funeral at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the former president taught more than 800 Sunday school lessons.
In his eulogy, Pastor Tony Lowden referenced Rosalynn Carter’s famous competitive streak and said she “never stopped competing.” To the laughter of the church, he joked that she would say from heaven, “Jimmy tried to beat me here.” I got here first. I won the prize. Tell him I beat him and I’m waiting for him.”
Jill Stuckey, a close family friend who was sitting nearby, said Jimmy Carter was visibly cheered by Lowden’s joke.
“He was happy she won,” Stuckey said. “He wanted to be there to protect her until she took her last breath.”
The funeral in the small brick church was attended by about 200 family members and invited friends on a cool day in late November, with frost already appearing on the grass.
The former president, who is 99 and extremely frail, was in a wheelchair at the service for his wife of 77 years. He has rarely left home over the past year, and his last public appearance before attending a memorial service for his wife in Atlanta on Tuesday was a brief visit to the annual Plains Peanut Festival in September.
The funeral was a much lower-profile event than Tuesday’s memorial service at a church at Emory University in Atlanta, which was attended by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton and all living former first ladies.
The funeral program included tributes from her son, John “Jack” Carter, and a grandson, Joshua Carter, as well as scripture readings from three of her 14 great-grandchildren. Actress and singer Joanna Maddox sang “The Lord’s Prayer” and the Georgia Southwestern State University Concert Choir from Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater also sang.
Jack Carter, the eldest of Jimmy and Rosalynn’s four children, joked about how his father “got used to Mom disagreeing with him because she was really good at it.” He said she was “a partner in the truest way sense of the word, in which both have equal rights.”
Lowden said in his eulogy: “There is no place on this earth where you can find anyone who has anything bad to say about Rosalynn Carter. Not one person on the left or anyone on the right.” That was because, he said, ” “She worshiped neither the donkey nor the elephant.” She worshiped the lamb.”
Lowden said she always looked out for the vulnerable and reached out to the hurting.
Jill Stuckey said Rosalynn Carter’s friends gathered at the church for several hours before the ceremony and swapped stories about the former first lady. “One minute we were telling stories and laughing, and the next something came loose and I just started crying,” she said.
Many members of the Carter family wore flower leis in honor of Rosalynn Carter’s love of Hawaii, where she and her husband lived while he was in the Navy shortly after World War II. Rosalynn Carter took hula dance lessons there and won a competition. Her Hawaii-born son, James E. “Chip” Carter III, remembered at Tuesday’s service how his mother still stood and performed her hula moves even after her dementia diagnosis this year. Her secret service code name was “Dancer.” (Jimmy Carter goes by “Deacon.”) When a family friend mailed the flower necklaces to her family, they decided to wear them at her funeral.
Toward the end of the funeral, the congregation sang “Amazing Grace.” Then the service ended with pianist David Osborne, a favorite of Rosalynn Carter, playing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” while the casket was carried away by a military honor guard accompanied by her 11 grandchildren, who served as honorary pallbearers.
As the casket was carried to the hearse, Jimmy Carter followed right behind in his wheelchair, leading the family.
From the church, the funeral procession, including a long line of black SUVs, moved through the tiny town center, which is essentially a living memorial to the Carters and features a general store selling the couple’s favorite peanut ice cream and a store, where political memorabilia is sold. The procession also passed the Plains train depot, which marks the city’s geographic center and served as headquarters for Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign.
Rosalynn Carter’s hearse was slowly driven down the street as members of her large family walked behind it. It was the same street where the Carters walked home hand in hand for years when they often dined at Stuckey’s. A small crowd gathered downtown, some holding their hands over their hearts as her body passed.
Laura Walker drove 50 miles to Plains on Wednesday. She watched the procession go by with her hand on her heart. “I feel privileged to witness this,” she said. “I wanted to be here and contribute to the feeling of loving support.”
It was eerily quiet along the route. The only sound was the occasional crackle of radios carried by some of the hundreds of police officers lining the streets.
The procession eventually arrived at a small ranch house the Carters built in 1961, which remains remarkably unchanged and modest. In a private ceremony, the former first lady was buried on a sloping lawn on the property near a pond where the Carters sometimes practiced fly fishing. When her husband dies, he will be buried next to her.
The Carters chose the burial site themselves years ago, hoping that their home and gravesite, to be converted into a museum, would be a tourist attraction that would bring needed revenue to Plains and its 700 residents.
Rosalynn Carter was known for her lifelong commitment to mental health issues and supporting caregivers. She set up the First Lady’s modern office in the East Wing of the White House, attended Cabinet meetings and was her husband’s closest political adviser. She visited around 120 countries and met with presidents and monarchs.
But in Plains she was also known for the humble and simple lifestyle she maintained compared to the former president. In their modest home, they often stored leftovers in a small cooler with the presidential seal.
“It is extraordinary that a former first lady is receiving so much attention, and Rosalynn Carter deserves it,” said E. Stanly Godbold, Jr., author of “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: Power and Human Rights 1975-2020.” With the Secret Service cordoning off much of Plains, the 81-year-old Godbold had walked about a half-mile into town from a parking lot outside of town.
Godbold attended Tuesday’s service in Atlanta, which was full of the powerful and famous. Then he came to Plains on Wednesday for the much simpler funeral. “The contrast is typical of the Carters,” he said. “They are humble people who still want to be remembered as ordinary citizens of Plains.”
Before the funeral began, well-wishers gathered at the former Plains High School, where Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended school, to sign a condolence book. “We love you very much. And we are grateful for your life and your example of how to live, love and see others. We are fully behind you,” said a note signed by Andrew Green.
National Park Service officials distributed copies of a poem written by Jimmy Carter called “Rosalynn.” It started with “She would smile and the birds would feel like they don’t have to sing anymore” and ended with “Her smile still makes the birds forget to sing and me to hear their song.”
Angela Foster wiped away a tear as she thought of Rosalynn Carter, her former boss. Foster drove to Plains to honor her by simply staying in the former first lady’s hometown.
“Today means I will never see her again,” said Foster, 59, who worked with Carter at Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit that builds affordable homes, and at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers.
Foster said she saw the former first lady hammer nails into boards at construction sites, increasing the work and pay of caregivers who support injured veterans and the elderly.
“She was practical,” Foster said. “I have never seen a person at her level be so compassionate. With everything going on in the world, you need that – someone who cares.”
Sullivan reported from Washington. Timothy Bella in Washington contributed to this report.
Rosalynn Carter: The Life of the Former First Lady
The Latest: At Rosalynn Carter’s funeral, the former first lady was honored for her faith, family and public service. She was buried near the home she and Jimmy Carter built in Plains, Georgia, in 1961. Rosalynn Carter died at the couple’s home on November 19 at the age of 96. Two days before her death, the Carter Center said she was in hospice care at home.
Redefining the Role of the First Lady: Rosalynn Carter created the modern Office of the First Lady and advocated for better treatment of the mentally ill during her years in the White House and four decades afterward. She is also the author or co-author of five books, primarily on nursing and mental health.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter: The Carters were married for more than 77 years, the longest presidential marriage in U.S. history. Their love story blossomed during World War II and survived the harsh test of political life. The final moments of Rosalynn’s life were spent with Jimmy at the family home in Plains.