'A fighter': President Jimmy Carter's neighbors know they'll say goodbye one day, but not yet

Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat

PLAINS, Ga. – Known around the world for fighting deadly diseases, making sure elections are run fairly and building homes for low-income families, former President Jimmy Carter is a hometown boy at heart.

Just ask those who know him as a peanut farmer first, the 700 or so people who also make their home in this two-block town, with its historic brick storefronts in the shadow of peanut processing plants, surrounded by fields of white cotton and its signature legume.

"We cherish him as a friend,” Ruth Sanders, program coordinator for the Plains Better Hometown program, said Wednesday, a day after Carter underwent brain surgery at an Atlanta hospital. 

"We cherish him as a friend,” Ruth Sanders, program coordinator for the Plains Better Hometown program, said in Plains, Ga., after Carter underwent brain surgery at an Atlanta hospital.

As famous as he is worldwide for his humanitarian efforts, there is no place on Earth where the longest-lived U.S. president is better known than this little burg. He and his wife of 73 years, Rosalynn, are real neighbors. 

Every time the 95-year-old takes a fall, fractures his hip or gets his head stitched up, townspeople hold their breath, say a prayer and wonder how many more Sunday school classes he’s got left in him to teach. 

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The concern was palpable this week, when Carter underwent surgery to treat a subdural hematoma, the result of a head injury from an fall at home that required 14 stitches in October. Since May, he's fallen three times.

“We gasped, and we’re holding our breath until we hear what the next word is,” said Ellen Harris, manager of the Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall.

“He’s such a fighter, and he’s proven to be, and he just comes back," said Ellen Harris, manager of Plains Historic Inn and Antique Mall. "He's raised the bar for the rest of us."

When Carter's pastor at Maranatha Baptist Church reported later that day he was recuperating and already walking and talking, the town breathed easier, but few were surprised. Folks here have faith it's going to take a lot more than brain surgery to keep Carter down.

“He’s such a fighter, and he’s proven to be, and he just comes back," Harris said. "He's raised the bar for the rest of us."

After the fall Oct. 6, Carter flew that same day to Nashville to attend the opening ceremonies for the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity. He spent the next week in the hot sun hammering away on homes.

The president is determined and doesn’t seem to want to stop or slow down, veterinarian Frank Pierce said. In May, Carter was getting ready for a turkey hunt when he fell, requiring hip replacement surgery. He had another fall Oct. 22, fracturing his pelvis.

“I doubt he has limitations, but when you get to be that age, probably a slower pace would be the intelligent way to go,” Pierce kindly chided. 

Jimmy Carter doesn’t seem to want to slow down, veterinarian Frank Pierce says. The Carters visit with Pierce at his vet clinic down the street, making sure the Secret Service men stay outside on the curb.

Carter put Plains on the map in 1976 when the farmer turned Georgia governor became the country's 39th president. After his single term in office, he and Rosalynn returned in 1981 to the modest ranch house they built in 1961.

The town, heralded on a sign above Bobby Salter's Plain Peanuts and General Store as the “Home of Jimmy Carter,” is a living, breathing presidential museum. It's hard to miss the peanut statues with Carter's toothy grin, his boyhood farm or even his brother Billy’s old gas station.

Thousands of visitors make the pilgrimage to Plains from as far as Beijing to attend his Sunday school class, stroll flag-festooned Main Street, buy political memorabilia and eat peanut butter ice cream.

Lucky ones have personally met "Mister Jimmy" and "Miss Rosalynn" – as locals call them – on one of their Friday walks from home to downtown.

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“There’s a stool he would sit on, and she would sit in a chair, and they would kind of rest,” said Harris, a lifelong resident and friend of the family. “When they would get ready to go, they’d grab hands and walk down the sidewalk and visit the other merchants.”

Tourists would be shocked.

“They couldn’t believe the president just walked in the store,” Harris said. “I would say, 'They’re just common people. They’re Plains residents, that’s what they are. They’re just our neighbors.' ”

The Carters visit with Pierce at his vet clinic down the street, making sure the Secret Service men stay outside on the curb. When he moved to town more than a decade ago, they immediately invited him to dinner to "make me feel comfortable."

Pierce has been a friend ever since, attending birthday celebrations and going quail and turkey hunting with the president, always with the bevy of Secret Service agents in tow.

“He likes turkey hunting, so I gave him a turkey vest and turkey call,” Pierce said. “He always likes my gifts because I never give him just a tie or a pen.”

Former president Jimmy Carter wraps up Sunday school class at Maranatha Baptist Church on Nov. 3 in Plains, Ga.

Carter sits on several boards, helps raise money for projects such as the new Boys and Girls Club, takes part in fundraising dinners and donates items for auctions, such as the Carter 2020 T-shirt (still constitutionally eligible) given to him by talk show host Stephen Colbert.

Before his birthday Oct. 1, he attended the annual Plains Peanut Festival, where he signed more than 500 books. 

“Nobody loves this community any more than President Carter and Miss Rosalynn,” said Sanders, who has lived in Plains for nearly 10 years. “They’re involved in everything we do. If we have an event and if it’s at all possible, they’re here.”

Townsfolk know he won’t be around a lot longer. In fact, he talked to his church and business leaders about how they will carry on after he’s gone.

“Will people around here be devastated? Of course, we will. We will miss him because he comes to everything,” Sanders said.

 She's got her fingers crossed he will be up and around for the Christmas Tree lighting ceremony Nov. 30.

“Hopefully, he’ll be able to come turn the lights on,” she said.

“I don’t think God is finished with him, and I don’t think he’s finished with his work here," Harris said. "He’s still got some work to be done."

Follow Jeffrey Schweers on Twitter: @jeffschweers.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Jimmy Carter's Plains, Ga., neighbors call him a 'fighter' after surgery