Opinion: Rosalynn Carter: From stand-by-your-man to humanitarian

Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images/TNS / U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, left, administers the oath of office to Jimmy Carter, right, as the 39th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1977, as Rosalynn Carter looks on.
Photo by STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images/TNS / U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, left, administers the oath of office to Jimmy Carter, right, as the 39th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1977, as Rosalynn Carter looks on.

The first two photographs of Rosalynn Carter in Chattanooga Times Free Press archives are symbolic of the era — the good wife standing by her man — albeit with a kiss — when Jimmy Carter earned a spot in the Georgia Democratic gubernatorial runoff in 1966 and again — this time with a smile — when Carter won the Democratic runoff in 1970.

But by the time she was discussed at length in these pages again, after becoming the Peach State's first lady, she was being talked about with the same plaudits she is receiving today as she is mourned by the nation after her death on Nov. 19.

More than 40 years after she and Jimmy Carter left the White House after his one term as president, she is being remembered as a close adviser to her husband, a strong mental health advocate and a passionate humanitarian.

Mike Jones, vice chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party, described the then-Georgia first lady as an example of women who were fully participating in the electoral process during her husband's successful 1970 run for governor when he spoke to the Chattanooga chapter of American Women in Radio and Television in 1971.

"Rosalyn didn't talk to the usual garden clubs and women's club," he said, "but rather she went on her own to the factories, to downtown areas and shopping centers, and even filled in for Jimmy on occasion at meet-the-candidate rallies when he had previous commitments.

  photo  AP File Photo / Then-Georgia state Sen. Jimmy Carter hugs his wife, Rosalynn, on Sept. 15, 1966, at campaign headquarters in Atlanta after he won a place in the runoff to be the Democratic nominee for Georgia governor.

"Although she did not have previous political experience, she was so effective that many persons commented that she could be a strong gubernatorial candidate in her own right."

Nevertheless, Carter wouldn't get the respect she deserved until her husband concluded his one term as governor in January 1975 and declared a few months later he would run for president of the United States in 1976. After all, local reporters and wire services were still spelling her name alternatively as "Rosalyn" and "Rosalynn."

During a July 1975 campaign stop in Chattanooga, accompanied by a single traveling companion (her daughter-in-law's mother), she discussed her interest in mental health (one she would champion in the White House), which she said developed by accident.

Already, Carter said, she had wanted to do something besides go to teas and coffees. "I had to do something more than that."

Then one day, she said, a woman approached her and said, "I have a mentally retarded child. What can you do for me?"

By the time her husband's term ended, Carter said, the number of community mental health centers in the state had grown from 23 to 136.

"We changed the whole program in Georgia," she said. Now, "we have people coming from all over" to study the Georgia centers.

On the campaign trail, she said to local reporters, "I answer the questions that I know," but otherwise said she referred to her husband's accomplishments as governor. Once asked about how she would "restructure Vietnam," for instance, she demurred, her traveling companion related.

Less than a year later, at a May 1976 Lovell Field (now Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport) news conference, she was asked if she should be as outspoken as then-current first lady Betty Ford, who had ruffled some feathers by differing from her Republican husband on abortion and unabashedly supporting the Equal Rights Amendment.

  photo  AP File Photo/John Bazemore / Former first lady Rosalynn Carter gives her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, a kiss as she introduces him during a reopening ceremony for the newly redesigned Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta on Oct. 1, 2009.

"It is important for public officials' wives to be informed, knowledgeable and [able to] speak out on issues important to them," she said, "not because of any special talents but because they are in positions to know what is going on."

Not surprisingly, after her husband was elected president, Carter attended Cabinet meetings, represented her husband on foreign trips and spoke out on issues important to them.

Upon her death, the former president said, "Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it."

As the country's first lady, Carter appeared briefly in Chattanooga in 1978 after visiting her eldest son, Jack, and his then wife in Calhoun, Georgia. After motoring up from Calhoun, she was greeted by then-City Commissioner Gene Roberts and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jane Eskind, among 75 well-wishers.

She smiled and waved at the crowd that gathered but did not address the media. Answering a shouted question about her time with her son, she said, "Yes, they're getting along just fine. We had a nice visit." After the short stop, she boarded a government jet and left for San Antonio, Texas, for a Democratic fundraiser.

Eskind told reporters that Carter wished her campaign well and hoped to return to Tennessee to stump for her.

The former first lady returned to the Scenic City at least twice, vacationing with her husband here at the Chattanooga Choo Choo in August 1991 and then attending the 2014 Kefauver Dinner for Hamilton County Democrats at the Chattanooga Convention Center. The 2014 dinner coincided with the final days of the Georgia gubernatorial campaign, in which the Carter's grandson, Jason, was the Democratic nominee.

The couple, by appearing in Chattanooga and hoping across-the-border Georgians might notice, wanted to pull out any stops for their progeny.

In her 96 years, Rosalynn Carter made great strides from the teenager who never thought she would get married because "I didn't know how to talk to [young men, and] I didn't want to go out with them."

Later, after marrying Jimmy Carter and upon his decision to enter politics, she said in her autobiography, "First Lady From Plains," "... I realized that people are just people, no matter who they are or how famous or powerful or influential. They have simply had more experience or more opportunities or a special talent, and I was not as intimidated by them as I thought I would be."

Contact Clint Cooper, editor of the Chattanooga Free Press opinion page, at ccooper@timesfreepress.com.

  photo  AP File Photo/Yun Jai-hyoung / Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, left, and his wife, Rosalynn, help build a house for the Jimmy Carter Work Project 2001 at Asan near Chonan city, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 6, 2001.

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