Jimmy Carter’s Hometown Reflects on Its Native Son

From a Wall Street Journal story by Cameron McWhirter headlined “As Jimmy Carter Enters Hospice Care, Former President’s Hometown Reflects on Native Son”:

PLAINS, Ga.—Many in this southwest Georgia hamlet of about 550 people have met its most famous son, Jimmy Carter—at stores, festivals, church or just on the street.

“He’d stop and talk to people, didn’t matter who you were,” said Meshia Williams, 54 years old, who has lived in Plains most of her life. “He would sit down with you, play with your baby.”

The Carter Center said Saturday that the 98-year-old former president had entered hospice care at his home here, to “spend his remaining time” with his family. The news sparked an outpouring of well wishes from people whose lives he touched, whether during his one term as president in Washington or his decades of philanthropy work in a busy post-presidency.

Residents in Plains, many of whom felt a personal connection to the former peanut farmer ever since he returned here after leaving the White House in 1981, said in interviews over the Presidents Day weekend that they are the Americans who know him best. Many said they are grappling with what will become of their town after his longtime presence is gone.

In 2015, doctors found cancer in Mr. Carter’s brain and liver. He said at the time that he would cut back on his work schedule to undergo treatment that included immunotherapy and radiation. Still, he remained active into his 90s.

Dorothy Ingram, 50, an educator from a nearby county, was meeting family outside a restaurant in Plains on Sunday morning when she noticed television crews gathered across the street. She had met the former president several times and was saddened when she heard the news of his apparent decline in health.

“You knew one day it was going to happen, but your heart is not prepared,” she said. “When I heard the news my heart hurt to know that he was going through this.”

Mr. Carter’s name is plastered on a large red, white and blue sign above the town’s only row of stores. The old high school serves as a museum to his life. The railroad depot has a visitor’s center dedicated to his political career. A sculpture of a large smiling peanut standing near a gas station was being repainted Sunday. Throughout the area, historic markers stand at sites relating to his life and that of his wife, Rosalynn Smith Carter—from the street where the former first lady grew up to Lebanon Cemetery, where generations of Carters and Smiths are buried on a red-clay hill outside of town.

Driving through Plains takes minutes, with only a handful of shops and businesses and no stoplights. The town is surrounded by farmland.

While several modern presidents were born in small towns, many moved to larger cities after their presidency. Mr. Carter returned home.

After losing re-election, Mr. Carter and his wife traveled the world to build homes for the poor, help combat diseases, help organize fair elections and promote books on a wide range of subjects. But they settled in this tiny town where they both grew up and were the leading citizens for decades.

For years, Mr. Carter bicycled around town with Secret Service agents pedaling alongside. He walked into peanut businesses unannounced to chat with managers. He shook hands with neighbors and anyone else who would shake his hand, asking about their lives and families. The former president loved talking with local farmers and those working in agriculture.

Gene Davis, 64, a retired Georgia Power employee who has lived in Plains since the early 1980s, said his late wife used to cut the former president’s hair. Mr. Carter would bicycle to her shop and liked it cut in a particular way, Mr. Davis said. Sometimes the former president would be so low key that tourists looking for Mr. Carter wouldn’t notice as he and Secret Service agents rode by, Mr. Davis said.

When people learned Mr. Davis and his wife were from Plains, they would ask if they ever met the former president.

“My wife would always say, ‘The question is whether he knew my name,’ ” Mr. Davis said. “And he did.”

The Carters spent years traveling the world and going to Atlanta, “but this was home, where everybody knew everybody,” Mr. Davis said.

E. Stanly Godbold Jr., a retired history professor from Mississippi State University and the author of two books on the Carters, said that the Carters set up the presidential library and nonprofit Carter Center in Atlanta but would only stay overnight there when needed in a one-room apartment with a Murphy bed. During the Carter presidency and busy post-presidency, “their most important rejuvenations were going back to Plains.” Mr. Carter will be buried on the grounds of the family’s compound in Plains, in part to help promote tourism for the area, Dr. Godbold said.

Until his health declined and the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Mr. Carter delivered Sunday school talks to packed audiences at the Maranatha Baptist Church just outside of downtown. The one-story church, set in a grove of pecan trees, has had thousands of people from all over the country and the world come to hear Mr. Carter, with many lining up in the early morning hours to get in.

On Sunday, about 40 people attended the service. The choir sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “America the Beautiful.”

Visiting pastor Hugh DeLoach asked the gathering to pray for the former president and his family and addressed God saying, “we thank you for his service to our nation.”

Jan Williams, an active member since 1977 who sings in the choir, said attendance dropped off when Mr. Carter stopped the talks, which focused on the Bible and how to apply it to one’s life.

Plains and the region around it—like many rural parts of the U. S.—have struggled in recent years with population loss and the ups and downs of farming. Beyond the Carters’ compound, surrounded by iron-fencing and guarded by Secret Service agents, the streets of Plains have well-kept country homes with wraparound porches, but also abandoned and dilapidated buildings.

As it has been for generations, the chief crop in the area remains peanuts. Throughout Sunday, workers at the Buffalo Peanut Company, which now owns buildings that once housed the Carter peanut business, pulled large red metal wagons full of peanuts to giant shelling machines. The humming of the machines could be heard blocks away.

Ben Buchanan, 45, a company partner who grew up in Plains, said all he has ever known is the former president as a powerful presence. Mr. Buchanan, born in 1977, said Mr. Carter would stop and chat with friends about how the peanut business was doing. They often gave him a bag of peanuts as a gift.

“If it wasn’t for him,” Mr. Buchanan said, “it would be just a dried up little town like all the others around here.”

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