Before the White House, Rosalynn Carter changed Georgia's first lady role

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Georgia’s “steel magnolia” didn’t bloom overnight.

For Rosalynn Carter, forging that steel took years working in tandem with her beloved husband, former President Jimmy Carter, as they charted his political future in their home state.

Mrs. Carter died Nov. 19 at age 96. A private tribute service honored the former first lady and tireless humanitarian on Tuesday at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Atlanta. A funeral service and interment will be held Wednesday at Maranatha Baptist Church in her beloved Plains, Georgia.

Andrew Hack, a junior Emory University student majoring in quantitative sciences and psychology, showed up near Glenn Memorial on Tuesday to witness what he’s “never experienced before” before – a major dignitary’s funeral.

“Just being near them and seeing them come out in support, along with our Emory students, it kind of feels like it doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a former president of the U.S. or just an Emory student," he said. "We’re all here to pay our respects to Mrs. Carter."

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The Carters wed in 1946, but also became business partners in 1953, when Carter resigned his U.S. Navy officer’s commission to take over the family farm after his father’s death. Initially opposed to returning to their hometown of Plains, Mrs. Carter soon immersed herself in the management of the business.

“We developed a partnership when we were working in the farm supply business, and it continued when Jimmy got involved in politics,” she told the Associated Press in 2021. “I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice about things.”

The farm’s increasing success gave Carter time to pursue political goals, and when he became a Georgia state senator in 1962, Mrs. Carter took on another job – sorting through her husband’s political correspondence.

As she got to know Carter’s constituents on paper, she also overcame a longtime shyness with public speaking. At one point early in her political life, Mrs. Carter repeatedly refused speaking engagements, Scott Kaufman wrote in his 2007 book, “Rosalynn Carter: Equal Partner in the White House.”

With pointers from her husband, Mrs. Carter’s onstage confidence grew. She honed her speaking skills as she began advocating for an issue that would help define her public life: mental health reform.

In the 1960s, Central State Hospital in Milledgeville had become possibly the largest mental institution in the world, housing up to 12,000 patients. Mrs. Carter kept hearing the same question from Georgians during her husband’s gubernatorial campaigns in 1966: If elected, what will the governor do about mental health reform?

President Carter has told the story of working a campaign event when a familiar person in the crowd reached to shake his hand.

“What are you doing here?” he asked his wife.

“I came to see what you are going to do to help people with mental illnesses when you become governor,” she said.

President Carter said he’d aim to have “the best program in the country” for mental health, and put Mrs. Carter in charge of it, he said.

“I do not think there has ever been another sort of leader in the mental health field who has had as much of an impact on mental health care and access to care and how we think about mental health and mental illness as Mrs. Carter,” Kathryn Cade, one of her longtime aides, told the Associated Press. “And I think it has to do with her incredible concern about the issue and her perseverance for more than 50 years.”

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Owing much to Mrs. Carter’s early commitment to mental health reform in Georgia, many of the recommendations from the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped became law in 1971. When Carter became governor, Georgia ran 23 mental health centers. By the time the Carters left, that number mushroomed to 134.

“I like (the Carter's) empathy, how they carried themselves,” said Atlanta resident Andre Benjamin as he walked past Tuesday's memorial services. “Their causes were all to help folks, whether it was Habitat for Humanity, whether it was mental health, or just trying to improve the world as a whole. That's who the Carters were – and are, because (Jimmy Carter is) still here.

Before she was a governor’s wife, Mrs. Carter was a politician’s wife. Her keen understanding of policy issues and the machinations of politics made her “Jimmy’s secret weapon,” author and journalist Jonathan Alter wrote in his 2020 book “His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.”

One example of her savvy was when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern was forced to drop his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, in 1972. According to Alter, Mrs. Carter “quietly called around, trying to get Jimmy named as the replacement.”

She helped redefine the role of first lady literally by creating an Office of the First Lady after Carter was elected president. Becoming more comfortable with her role, she attended Cabinet meetings with her husband. When the Carter administration reached out to Latin America in 1977, she was the envoy.

Before there was a Rosalynn Carter whose humanitarian efforts touched the world, there was a Rosalynn Carter from Plains whose determination drove her success.

“The first lady role has changed,” she said, according to The New York Tines. “I don't think there will ever be another first lady who will be just a hostess and pour tea.”

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Rosalynn Carter changed first lady role in Georgia before White House