Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter Dead at 96

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, wife of former President Jimmy Carter, has passed away at age 96.

By Corinne Heller Nov 19, 2023 8:50 PMTags
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Rosalynn Carter, wife of former President Jimmy Carter, has died.

The former First Lady, a trailblazing mental health and equal rights advocate, passed away at age 96 Nov. 19 at her home in Plains, Georgia. She died peacefully, with family by her side, the family's Atlanta-based nonprofit organization the Carter Center said in a statement, two days after revealing that she entered hospice care at home and more than five months after announcing that she had been diagnosed with dementia.

"Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished," her husband of 77 years, President Carter, said in a statement provided by the center. "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."

The former president, a 2002 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, had himself entered hospice care in February after a series of short hospital stays and after declining additional medical intervention, his organization had said at the time. At age 99, he is the oldest and longest-living president in U.S. history.

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In addition to the U.S. leader, Rosalynn is also survived by their children John William "Jack" Carter, 76, James Earl "Chip" Carter III, 73, Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" Carter, 71, and Amy Carter, 56, as well as 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. A grandson died in 2015.

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"Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right," Chip said in a statement provided by the Carter Center. "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."

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Rosalynn was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in 1927 in Plains, Georgia. She graduated Georgia Southwestern College in 1946. Later that year, she married her husband, who had just graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy. She was 18 and he was 21 at the time. They were the longest-married presidential couple.

Throughout her life, Rosalynn was an advocate of mental health, caregiving and equal rights.

She also championed immunizing children against preventable disease. When her husband was president amid a measles outbreak, she worked to make vaccinations a routine public health practice and by 1981, 95 percent of children entering school were immunized against measles and other diseases, according to her bio on her memorial tribute site.

In 1982, the Carters founded the Carter Center, which aims to "improve lives by resolving conflicts; advancing democracy and preventing diseases," according to its mission statement.

Five years later, Rosalynn founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern State University. In 2000, the Carter Center and Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health established the Rosalynn Carter Endowed Chair in Mental Health, the first endowed chair in mental health policy at a school of public health.

According to the Carter Center, when asked once how she would like to be remembered, Rosalynn said, "I would like for people to think that I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could."

Look back at Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's romance below:

Young Love

A photo from Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's earliest days together as a young naval officer and his bride stands out at the Plains High School Jimmy Carter National Historical Park in their Georgia hometown.

PDA at the DNC

The Carters could share a private moment anywhere, even in front of thousands of people at the Democratic National Convention in 1976.

Three Generations

Along with his mother, Jimmy and Rosalynn were joined at the DNC here by daughter Amy Lynn Carter, their eldest son, John William "Jack" Carter, and third son Donnel Jeffrey "Jeff" Carter with his wife Annette Davis.


President and First Lady-Elect

The couple, watching the returns with family in Atlanta, embraced on Election Night in 1976 upon finding out that Carter was going to be the 39th president of the United States.

Dancing the Night Away

The president and first lady put their best feet forward at a series of inaugural balls following Jimmy's swearing-in on Jan. 20, 1977. Rosalynn raised some eyebrows by recycling the same Mary Matise for Jimmae gown she wore to her husband's 1971 gubernatorial inauguration balls, but she had her husband's full support, Jimmy writing in A Full Life that he was "very proud of her beauty and grace."

First Daughter

Daughter Amy Lynn Carter was 9 when she and her Siamese cat Misty Malarky Ying Yang and dog Grits moved into the White House in January 1977.

Jimmy was the first sitting president since Theodore Roosevelt (and no president has done it since) to send his child to public school, enrolling Amy at Thaddeus Stevens Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

But if there had been an Internet, this would have been a meme: During his one debate with Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in October 1980, President Carter invoked his then-13-year-old when he said, "I had a discussion the other day with my daughter Amy before I came here to ask me what the important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms."

Let's just say, the other side had a little fun with that, with Reagan supporters in Milwaukee chanting "Amy! Amy!" two days later when the candidate delivered a speech. "I remember when Patti and Ron were tiny kids," the future 36th president quipped. "We used to talk about nuclear power."

"Ask Amy" bumper stickers became a quick moneymaker for Republican groups, and she even made The Tonight Show, host Johnny Carson joking, "This will be a significant monologue because I asked Amy Carter what she thought were the most important issues to make jokes about."

Family Portrait

The Carters may have had a young daughter but they also had three daughters-in-law by the time Jimmy became president, and most of the family moved to Washington. 

Jack and wife Juliette "Judy" Langford stayed in Georgia, where they had welcomed son Jason James Carter on Aug. 7, 1975, and where daughter Sarah Rosemary would be born Dec. 19, 1978. (After their divorce, Jack married mother of two Elizabeth Brasfield on May 15, 1992.)

The Carters' second son, James Earl "Chip" Carter III, worked for the Democratic National Committee in Washington while his dad was in office and moved into the White House with wife Caron Griffin, who was eight months pregnant on Inauguration Day. Still, she strolled along the parade route with the rest of the family for a few blocks when the president and first lady made the unprecedented move to walk the whole mile and a half from the Capitol to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"People along the parade route, when they saw that we were walking, began to cheer and weep," Jimmy later wrote, "and it was an emotional experience for us as well."

Baby on Board

Chip and Caron's son, James Earl Carter IV, was born Feb. 25, 1977. That August it was announced that Chip was returning to Plains but his wife and child would be staying with the first family, and he and Caron confirmed their separation in 1978. Chip later married Ginger Hodges, with whom he welcomed daughter Margaret Alicia Carter on Sept. 23, 1987.

Chip's been married to third wife Becky Payne since 2001.

Happy Family

The Carters' third son, Jeff, married his college sweetheart Annette Davis on April 6, 1975, and they moved into the White House, too, while he was attending George Washington University.

Jeff and Annette eventually had three sons, Joshua Jeffrey (b. 1984), Jeremy Davis (1987-2015) and James Carlton (b. 1991), and were together until her death on Sept. 19, 2021.

Close-Knit Couple

Rosalynn was her husband's number-one confidante when he was president—and forever after.

"It's a full partnership," Carter told the AP in 2021 of his then-75-year marriage.

The Beat of Their Own Drum

Jimmy and Rosalyn remain in sync at the White House in January 1979.

First Daughter

Amy, here with her dad in 1995, is mom to son Hugo, born in 1999, with first husband James Gregory Wentzel, and son Errol Carter Kelly with her spouse since 2007, John Joseph "Jay" Kelly.

Merry Christmas From Plains

The house Jimmy and Rosalynn built in 1961 and have lived in ever since remained the gathering spot for the whole family.

The Carters are also great-grandparents to Jason's sons, Henry and Thomas, with his wife Kate; Sarah's daughter, Josephine, with husband Brendan Keith Murphy; Margaret's daughter, Alicia, with husband Harold Edward Carter; Joshua's sons, Charles and Jonathan, with wife Sarah; and James' daughter, Rayna Rose, with wife Anna.

Here's Looking at You

It's no wonder they earned the nickname "first lovebirds."

Sealed With a Kiss

Jimmy knew a thing or two about keeping the peace.

"Every day there needs to be reconciliation and communication between the two spouses," the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize told the AP. "We don't go to sleep with some remaining differences between us." 

Through Thick and Thin

"Jimmy and I are always looking for things to do together," Rosalynn said, but "each [spouse] should have some space. That's really important."


National Treasures

"It's hard to live until you're 95 years old," Carter told People in 2019. "I think the best explanation for that is to marry the best spouse: someone who will take care of you and engage and do things to challenge you and keep you alive and interested in life."

Habit for Longevity

"One of the things Jesus taught was: If you have any talents, try to utilize them for the benefit of others," Jimmy told People in 2019, discussing the nearly four decades he and his wife had spent volunteering and advocating for Habitat for Humanity. "That's what Rosa and I have both tried to do."

Though their physical involvement in construction grew more limited with time, the Carters became synonymous with the organization, which builds affordable housing and offers no-interest mortgages to buyers who otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a home.

"I think both mine and Rosa's minds are almost as good as they used to be, we just have limited capability on stamina and strength," Jimmy said. "But we still try to stay busy and do a good job at what we do."

They got so adept at wielding tools over the years, they knocked down their own bedroom wall during a later-in-life home renovation in Plains.

"By that time," Rosalynn told the Washington Post in 2018, "we had worked with Habitat so much that it was just second-nature."

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