Her journey took her from the smallest of small towns in rural Georgia to the majesty of the White House, from the campaign trails of Iowa and New Hampshire to refugee camps in Asia and impoverished villages in Africa.
But in the end, the final chapter of Rosalynn Carter’s story brought her back to Georgia, to a simple but elegant church for a simple but elegant memorial service where presidents and first ladies and governors and senators paid their respects but the only ones who spoke from the pulpit on her behalf were her pastors, family and friends.
That was Mrs. Carter. She could navigate the currents of big-time American politics and confront foreign dictators, but she never forgot her humble roots and wanted to be remembered not just as a trailblazing first lady but a caregiver for the world’s most vulnerable. What would have meant most to her, relatives agreed, was the presence of former President Jimmy Carter, who emerged from hospice care to bid farewell to his wife of three-quarters of a century.
“My grandmother doesn’t need a eulogy,” Jason Carter, one of her grandsons, told the mourners, quoting something he had been told beforehand. “Her life was a sermon. It was a mighty testament to the power of faith and the power of a deep and determined love. And she lived this public love story that we all know of, that has inspired the world including in these last days.”
Mrs. Carter, who was suffering from dementia, died at 96 last week at the family’s modest ranch-style house in Plains, Ga. It was just four months after she and her husband celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary, making them the longest-lasting presidential couple in American history.
The former president, who turned 99 last month and has rarely been seen in public since entering hospice care in February, made the 140-mile journey from Plains to Atlanta to join President Biden, former President Bill Clinton and all five living first ladies for the invitation-only service at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University.
Mr. Carter was brought into the church in a wheelchair as the crowd looked on with anticipation, catching their first glimpse of him in many months. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie with a Plains blanket with images of him and his wife wrapped over his legs. His face was pale, his mouth hung open and he did not make eye contact with many mourners. His daughter, Amy Carter, sat next to him holding his hand, flanked by her brothers, Jack, Chip and Jeff.
The former president was unable to address the gathering and so left it to others to express his feelings. From the pulpit, family and friends honored Mrs. Carter as her husband’s alter ego and most important confidant, with a strong will of her own sometimes disguised by a shy exterior.
“What a remarkable woman she was — wife, mother, business manager, political strategist, diplomat, advocate, author,” said Kathryn Cade, who served as Mrs. Carter’s project director in the East Wing of the White House and worked with her for decades to follow. “Yet what I remember most about her was her tireless dedication to taking care of others.”
James Earl Carter III, her son who goes by Chip, said Mrs. Carter got him the help he needed to fight addiction. “She saved my life,” he said. And he added that she had saved many more through her work both in the White House and afterward.
“She had met kings and queens, presidents, others in authority, powerful corporate leaders and celebrities,” he added. “She said the people that she felt the most comfortable with and the people she enjoyed being with the most were those that lived in absolute, abject poverty.”
Mrs. Carter was central to her husband’s business and political careers, managing the books of his peanut farm and crossing the country to campaign for him. She pushed to improve mental health services and brought activism to the role of first lady. After Mr. Carter lost re-election, the two returned to the small house in Plains that they had built in 1961 and focused on philanthropic activities for most of the past four decades.
“Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter,” Judy Woodruff, the former anchor of “PBS NewsHour” who first covered the Carters during a Georgia State Senate campaign in 1970, told the mourners.
Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia and a fund-raiser for Mr. Carter in 1980, recalled that the first lady hit the campaign trail that year alone while her husband remained at the White House to deal with the Iran hostage crisis.
“She was the chief campaigner, chief surrogate for the re-election” campaign, Mr. McAuliffe said in an interview. “She was tireless, indefatigable, would go to any event, any time and shake every hand.”
But there was another Rosalynn Carter presented on Tuesday, the family matriarch who made sure to enclose a $20 bill in every birthday card, even to a 45-year-old grandson, and a cook with few recipes that did not involve mayonnaise. Jason Carter described a family trip when, at the back of a commercial plane, his grandmother suddenly pulled out a Tupperware container with bread and cheese to make everyone sandwiches — including other passengers.
“People were sitting there like, ‘Rosalynn Carter just made me this sandwich!’” he recalled. “They couldn’t believe it. But she loved people. And she was a cool grandma. She was cool — like, she did tai chi with this sword.”
She was an adventurer who traveled to 122 countries, learned to ski in her 60s, went trout fishing in Siberia and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. In her final months, she said she was not using a cane. “It’s a trekking pole,” she said. Chip Carter said that not long ago she summoned memories of the family’s time in Hawaii and suddenly rose from the sofa, pushed away her walker and performed a hula dance. “That’s how you do it,” she said.
The Carters have outlived so many of their contemporaries that most Americans were not even alive when they were in the White House, so the service was a chance to reintroduce the 39th president and his wife. Mrs. Carter personally scripted the event, making a point of inviting those she actually knew. “The list is her list,” Paige Alexander, the chief executive of the Carter Center, said beforehand.
The former president was the most determined of the guests. Frail as he is, relatives said they were certain he has hung on through more than nine months of hospice care because he did not want Mrs. Carter to be left alone.
“He’s coming to the end, and he’s very, very physically diminished,” Jason Carter, who is chairman of the Carter Center board, said in an interview before the service. “But I think he was proud and happy that he was there for her till the very end, and he wasn’t going to miss this for anything.”
The ceremony reflected Mrs. Carter’s taste for simple elegance over modern glitz. It was that rare event where both Mr. Biden and Mr. Clinton, two of their generation’s most loquacious politicians, attended without speaking, and sat respectfully in the front row, uncharacteristically silent throughout.
They were joined by Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff; Jill Biden, the current first lady; former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; three other former first ladies, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump; and three presidential daughters, Lynda Johnson Robb, Luci Baines Johnson and Susan Ford Bales.
Mrs. Carter will be taken back to Plains, where after a private funeral service at Maranatha Baptist Church on Wednesday, she will be buried at the Carter Home and Garden, part of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park. Mr. Carter plans to be laid to rest next to her.
As he wrapped up his eulogy for a woman who needed no eulogy, Jason Carter summed up his grandmother’s life. “She was made,” he said, “for these long journeys.”