He was the president of the United States and the governor of Georgia, but Jimmy Carter always said the “pinnacle” of his life was getting Eleanor Rosalynn Smith to marry him.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were married for more than 77 years, longer than any couple to have taken up residence at the White House.
The former first lady died peacefully at home in Georgia on Sunday, the Carter Center announced. She died at age 96, just days after going into hospice care.
“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Jimmy Carter said in a statement. “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.”
Rosalynn Carter was by her husband’s side when he was inaugurated as the nation’s 39th president in 1977 and was his rock of support during a hostage-taking crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Iran that dogged his presidency, as well as during the crushing landslide reelection loss to Ronald Reagan that made him a one-term commander in chief.
In the twilight of their enduring love story, 99-year-old Jimmy Carter leaned on his wife once more after announcing in February 2023 that, after a series of short hospital stays, he had “decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family and receive hospice care instead of additional medical intervention.”
As Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter both prepared for the end, the couple had plenty of support from their four children, and their 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
“They are at peace and – as always – their home is full of love,” the couple’s grandson, Jason Carter, who chairs The Carter Center governing board, wrote in a Twitter post in February after his grandfather announced he was going into hospice care.
1945-1962: Courtship, marriage and early life together
A one-time commanding officer of a Navy submarine, Jimmy Carter – who began courting Rosalynn Smith while he was a cadet at the United States Naval Academy – often referred to his wife as his “secret weapon,” both on the campaign trail and in their private life.
“When I first had a date with her, the next morning I told my mother, that was the girl I wanted to marry,” Jimmy Carter told ABC News in July 2021, as he and his wife emerged from COVID-19 isolation to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary.
In the same interview, Rosalynn Carter said she turned him down the first time he proposed, saying she had promised her father on his deathbed that she would finish college before she wed.
“But he was persistent and I gave in,” she told ABC News, adding, “Life with Jimmy Carter has been an adventure.”
In a 2015 interview at The Carter Center, the couple’s humanitarian organization, Jimmy Carter reflected on life with his wife, saying, “The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn. That’s the pinnacle of my life.”
They were born three years apart in the years between World War I and the Great Depression in the tiny town of Plains, Georgia. While they knew each other from childhood, and she was the best friend of his sister, Ruth, Rosalynn Carter said she didn’t really notice her future husband until he was about 13.
In the 2020 book “What Makes a Marriage Last” by Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, Rosalynn Carter said she fell in love with a photograph of Jimmy Carter that Ruth Carter had on her bedroom wall.
“I didn’t know a single boy I thought I’d want to spend my life with until Jimmy Carter came calling,” she said in the book. But at the time, Jimmy Carter had left Plains for Annapolis, Maryland, to enroll in the Naval Academy.
As fate would have it, while back home on a break from the Naval Academy, Jimmy Carter found himself without a date because his then-girlfriend was at a family reunion, he recalled in “What Makes a Marriage Last.”
“I was cruising around with my sister, Ruth, and her boyfriend, just looking for a date, and I picked up Rosalynn in front of the Methodist church,” he recalled. “I just felt compatible with her. She was beautiful and innocent, and there was a resonance. We rode in the rumble seat of a Ford pickup – Ruth and her boyfriend in the front – and I kissed her on that first date. I remember that vividly.”
The couple married on July 7, 1946, and traveled the world while he was deployed to different bases, including Pearl Harbor, as a submarine officer.
1963-1981: Life in politics
After leaving the Navy in 1953, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter returned to Plains, where he took over his family’s peanut-growing farm while also serving in the Navy Reserve for several years. He became active in the local Democratic Party, opposing racial segregation and supporting the emerging Civil Rights movement.
In 1963, with his wife at his side, Jimmy Carter was elected to the Georgia State Senate and in 1970, he campaigned for governor of Georgia and won. During their time in the governor’s mansion, Rosalynn Carter focused on issues of mental health, serving on the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped. She also became her husband’s chief advisor in running the state.
Rosalynn Carter expanded that role in 1975 when her husband ran as a dark horse candidate for U.S. president, helping him defeat incumbent President Gerald Ford.
During his presidency, Jimmy Carter openly called his wife his “secret weapon” and frequently requested she sit in on cabinet meetings and even some national security briefings. He credited her as being his confidant during the Camp David Accords and the Iranian hostage crisis.
1981-present: Life after the White House
After his resounding defeat to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter returned to Plains. Instead of resting on their laurels, they threw themselves into humanitarian work, joining forces with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit group founded in 1976 by a Christian couple named Millard and Linda Fuller, with the stated mission of “seeking to put God’s love into action” by building homes for people in need.
“Habitat provides a simple but powerful avenue for people of different backgrounds to come together to achieve those most meaningful things in life. A decent home, yes, but also a genuine bond with our fellow human beings. A bond that comes with the building up of walls and the breaking down of barriers,” Jimmy Carter once said.
In addition to building houses for the disadvantaged around the world, the Carters also shared a mutual love for bird-watching and fly-fishing, even building a fly-fishing pond on their Georgia property.
In the 2021 interview with ABC News, the Carters were asked how they stayed happily married for so many years. Jimmy Carter attributed the longevity of their union to working on projects and hobbies they are both interested in and giving each other space to pursue individual interests.
“We’ve always gone deeper in our love for one another,” Jimmy Carter told ABC News in 2021.
He also revealed in the interview that he and his wife argued like most couples, but decided long ago never to go to bed angry with each other.
“Every night we try to make sure that we are completely reconciled from all the arguments during the day when we go to bed,” he said.