Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, wife of Jimmy Carter, dies at 96

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Rosalynn Carter, the mild-mannered but determined wife of President Jimmy Carter who advocated for mental health and a gentler nation, died Sunday at home in Plains, Ga. She was 96.

She died with her family by her side, according to the family’s charity organization.

A small-town working woman with an airtight bond to her husband, Carter represented a new type of first lady: She toted a briefcase to the White House, traveled often and picked up the nickname “Steel Magnolia” as she pushed for human rights abroad and at home.

She became known as a tireless campaigner and an effective — if initially reluctant — public speaker. Beyond simply supporting her husband’s political career, she emerged as a significant voice in Washington, setting her focus on increasing childhood immunizations, bolstering access to mental health care and battling gender inequality.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” former President Carter, 99, said in a statement Sunday. “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.”

During her Democratic husband’s single term on Pennsylvania Ave., which lasted from 1977 to 1981, she attended cabinet meetings, served as an emissary to some Latin American countries and was honorary chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

She described herself as her husband’s “political partner,” and she rode out criticism that she overstepped her mandate as a presidential spouse.

“I would like for people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had,” she once said, “and did the best I could.”

Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in Plains on Aug. 18, 1927, Carter was unknowingly introduced to her future husband on the week of her birth. Jimmy Carter, also from the farming town, was 2. They were next-door neighbors.

Her father died when she was 13, and her mother started work as a dressmaker as she took on responsibilities helping to raise her three younger siblings.

In the summer of 1945, Rosalynn went on a double date with Jimmy, his sister Ruth, and Ruth’s boyfriend. Jimmy was home from school at the Naval Academy, and the four cruised to a cinema in a Ford convertible.

A day later, Jimmy told his mom: “She’s the one I’m going to marry.”

The next December, after months of letters passed between the budding lovers, he asked her to marry him. She said no. She wasn’t ready.

But they ultimately wed at a Methodist church in July 1946.

Early in their marriage, Jimmy too often made major decisions — leaving the Navy, say, or even running for state Senate in 1962 — without consulting his wife, a habit that created tension and that he later acknowledged. But with time, they became fuller partners, and she became a trusted adviser and vital campaigner.

She helped her peanut farmer husband on his path from the state legislature to the Georgia governor’s office and all the way to the White House.

“I love campaigning,” Rosalynn told The Associated Press as her marriage approached the 75-year mark. “I had the best time. I was in all the states in the United States. I campaigned solid every day the last time we ran.”

After Jimmy took the presidency, her role hardly diminished. “She was really the eyes and the ears for Jimmy Carter,” Gerald Rafshoon, communications director in the Carter White House, once said, according to The Washington Post. “And she was the person we’d go to if we needed to turn Jimmy around on something.”

Her husband professed that his wife was the more political of the pair. Indeed, in her book “First Lady From Plains,” Rosalynn said she felt her husband sometimes gave political calculus short shrift in his decision making.

When Jimmy Carter lost to President Ronald Reagan in 1980, Rosalynn was “bitter enough for both of us,” she recalled remarking to an aide. And she provided Nancy Reagan, the incoming first lady, an icy reception to the White House after the election. (Rosalynn later said the rancor faded.)

After leaving Washington, Rosalynn continued to work to reduce stigma around mental illness, and she served as vice chair of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which is focused on enhancing human rights around the globe.

She and Jimmy returned to Plains, their love growing stronger through the years. They raised three sons — Jack, Chip and Jeff — and a daughter, Amy. And the couple grew old together in Georgia.

“He has always thought I could do anything,” Rosalynn said of Jimmy at a celebration of his 90th birthday. “And because of that, I — and we — have had some wonderful adventures.”