By BILL BARROW
ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are marking their 77th wedding anniversary with a quiet Friday at their south Georgia home, extending their record as the longest-married first couple ever as both nonagenarians face significant health challenges.
The 39th president is 98 and has been in home hospice care since February. The former first lady is 95 and has dementia. The Carter family has not offered details of either Jimmy or Rosalynn Carter’s condition but has said they both have enjoyed time with each other and a stream of family members, along with occasional visits from close friends, in recent months.
“As we have looked back at their legacy, it has been really wonderful to see the outpouring of support and respect and love,” grandson Jason Carter said recently. “That word love is really the one that defines certainly their personal relationship, but also the way they approach this world.”
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have been on the American and international stage together for a half-century. What they described as “full partnership” began years earlier in the Carter family farm business before his political career and their decades of global humanitarian work since leaving the White House in 1981 and establishing The Carter Center the following year.
Through the center, Jimmy Carter conducted multiple diplomatic missions, working with the blessings of his Oval Office successors, even as he sometimes rankled them. The former president and center employees have monitored at least 114 elections across Asia, Africa and the Americas since 1989. They have recently turned their efforts to U.S. elections.
Among their public health outreach, the center’s Guinea worm eradication program has nearly conquered the water-born parasite once prevalent in the developing world. Known cases measured in the millions in the mid-1980s when Jimmy Carter set a goal of eradicating Guinea worm disease. There were fewer than two dozen cases in 2022 and, as of earlier this spring, the center had yet to document a case in 2023.
Rosalynn Carter, meanwhile, took her signature policy issue — mental health treatment and advocacy — beyond the White House and established an annual fellowship for journalists to concentrate on mental health reporting. She also advocated widely for better services for caregivers, a focus the Carter family highlighted earlier this year when they announced the former first lady had dementia.
Beyond the Carter Center, the couple became the most famous volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, the international outfit that builds, repairs and renovates homes for low-income people. The Carters first volunteered for Habitat in 1984, taking a bus from Georgia to the New York City worksite along with other volunteers. They would soon begin hosting annual builds bearing the former president’s name, donning hardhats with volunteers into their late 80s and early 90s.
“Everything they’ve done is really just an extension of what they started and who they were in the White House,” said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic Party chairwoman who got her start in politics on Carter’s presidential campaigns. “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are just good, decent people.”
The Carters married July 7, 1946, in their hometown of Plains. But their relationship extends to the cradle.
Jimmy Carter’s parents were friends of Rosalynn’s parents. The future president’s mother was the nurse who delivered Eleanor Rosalynn Smith at the Smith family home in 1927. “Miss Lillian” returned to the Smith home a few days later with her eldest son, preschooler Jimmy, to meet the new baby. The Carters moved to a farm in nearby Archery, just outside of Plains, not long after, though the Carter children and Smith children would continue to see each other at school in Plains.
Rosalynn would become a close friend of Jimmy’s sister Ruth, who played the part of matchmaker during one of her elder brother’s visits back home from the U.S. Naval Academy. Jimmy and Rosalynn married soon after he graduated. They left Plains with no intention of returning other than as visitors. But in 1953, James Earl Carter Sr. died, leaving behind the family’s farming and warehouse enterprise. Without consulting Rosalynn, the young lieutenant decided to leave the Navy and move his young family back to Georgia.
The future president, who became an advocate for women’s rights and nominated more women and non-white people to federal posts than any of his predecessors, later called it inconceivable that he did not consult his wife. Yet over the ensuing years, Rosalynn Carter became a key partner in the family business.
“I knew more on paper about the business than he did. He would take my advice about things,” she told The Associated Press in a joint interview with her husband ahead of their 75th anniversary in 2021.
That continued in politics, as Rosalynn Carter proved herself a skillful campaigner and forceful policy advocate in her own right, overcoming her youthful shyness that the former president has depicted in his writing and painting.
“My wife is much more political,” he said in the interview.
Beyond their longevity, both Carters credit their long marriage to open communication and their shared Christian faith.
“Every day there needs to be reconciliation,” the former president said in 2021. “We don’t go to sleep with some remaining differences between us.”
The pair also have enjoyed hobbies together for years — sometimes even competitively. Before they became frail, they enjoyed playing tennis, hiking and cycling together. Both prolific writers, they sometimes raced to finish drafts of books. Fishing often involved competition, too, and they continued to fish into their 90s on their property in Plains. They added bird watching in recent decades as they slowed down physically.
For all their common joys, Rosalynn Carter added another component of a successful marriage. “Each should have some space,” she said. “That’s really important.”