Former United States First Lady and mental health advocate Rosalynn Carter passed away at the age of 96 on Sunday, according to The Carter Centre, after suffering from dementia and several months of declining mental health.
Rosalynn was married to former US President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jimmy Carter for 77 years, becoming the longest-married US presidential couple. Rosalynn was a humanitarian and a mental health advocate who founded the Carter Centre with her husband to advance world peace and health.
“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished… 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,” said ex-President Jimmy Carter in a statement.
As reactions from world leaders poured in, US President Joe Biden also paid tribute to the former First Lady, saying that she “walked her own path, inspiring a nation and the world along the way”.
“On behalf of a grateful nation, we send our love to the entire Carter family and the countless people whose lives are better, fuller, and brighter because of Rosalynn Carter,” he said on social media platform X.
“From her days as a US Navy spouse, to the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, to her tenure as First Lady of the United States, and her later work at the Carter Center and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, she leaves behind a legacy of extraordinary accomplishment and national service,” said former US President Donald Trump said on Truth Social.
Rosalynn Carter’s political career
Born in Plains, Georgia on August 18, 1927, Rosalynn was the eldest of four children, who took on much of the family’s responsibility when her father died while she was young. She contributed to the family by working after school in a beauty parlour.
After a blind date, Rosalynn married Jimmy Carter in 1946 and became his closest advisor when the latter became the US President in 1977 – sitting in Cabinet meetings, speaking on controversial issues and representing her husband on diplomatic trips.
Jimmy Carter, now 99 years old, called Rosalynn his “best friend… the perfect extension of me”. Fiercely loyal as well as politically astute, reports in Washington called her the “Steel Magnolia”. She was sent by her husband on a mission to Latin America in 1977, mere months into his term, to convey his message of denying military aid to dictators.
She went on to play a crucial role in restoring the country’s trust in the US presidency after the infamous Watergate scandal that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. She also played a vital role in emphasising mental health and problems faced by elderly citizens.
As honorary chairwoman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, she once testified before a Senate subcommittee, becoming the first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to address a congressional panel. She continued her work on mental health coverage well into the late 2000s.
The Carter Centre and later life
After the establishment of the Carter Centre, the Carters accelerated their work on mental health issues and raised funds for efforts to aid the mentally ill and homeless. Together, they travelled to hotspots worldwide, including visits to Cuba, Sudan, and North Korea, monitoring elections and working to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other neglected tropical diseases.
“I get tired. But something so wonderful always happens. To go to a village where they have Guinea worm and go back a year or two later and there’s no Guinea worm, I mean the people dance and sing — it’s so wonderful,” said Rosalynn at the time.
The former presidential couple also built houses with Habitat for Humanity and promoted public health and democracy across the developing world, eventually earning a Nobel Peace Prize for Jimmy Carter in 2002.
Rosalynn stayed by her husband’s side when doctors discovered four small tumours on his brain and helped him recover from a hip replacement surgery at the age of 94. The couple had started their end-of-life care recently. She was the second longest-living first lady, behind Bess Truman who died at 97.
She is survived by her children — Jack, Chip, Jeff, and Amy — and 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. One of her grandsons died in 2015, according to the Carter Centre. “Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today,” said her son Chip.
(with inputs from agencies)