PLAINS, Ga. – Linda Campbell decorated the Lions Club Christmas tree in her small hometown like she would any other Thanksgiving week, but this was no ordinary Monday in late November.
Across the town of Plains, neighbors mourned the death of their matriarch, former US first lady Rosalynn Carter, while worrying about their patriarch, former President Jimmy Carter.
“We've been praying for them every day for a long time,” Campbell, 75, said as another Plains resident, Lee Johnson, lowered the U.S. and Georgia flags that fly in front of the downtown shopping district. city.
Rosalynn Carter died at her home on Sunday after her physical health rapidly declined as she lived with dementia for the past several months. He was 96. The former president, who is 99, has been hospitalized at home since February.
It was not immediately clear Monday whether Jimmy Carter will be able to attend public services for his wife next week in Sumter County and Atlanta.
For months, the townspeople had been waiting to lose him first. Now, with Rosalynn's passing, they and the extended Carter family are embracing the opportunity to celebrate a woman who was so often defined by her husband, but who forged her own path locally and globally.
“He was an incredibly humble person — the epitome of grace,” said Tim Buchanan, a cousin of Rosalyn's whose mother remained close to her throughout her life. “Her fingerprints are on things all over this community.”
Jill Stuckey, a close friend of the Carters since moving to south Georgia in the 1990s, called the couple “the soul of Plains,” a town of about 600 people. That's about the same size as when the future president and first lady were born here in the 1920s, married here in 1946 and ran his presidential campaign from the old Plains train depot in 1976.
“It was awesome to see the two of them doing all that stuff,” recalls Campbell, who grew up with the Carters' older children. “It was exciting here too. “When they were in the White House, we had tour buses of people from all over the world coming to see where Mr. Jimmy and Mrs. Rosalyn were from.”
Perhaps more surprising than a presidential couple emerging from such a small place is that they returned after Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980, returning to the same house they lived in when he was first elected to the state Senate in 1962.
“I was a little surprised as an 18-year-old wondering why,” said LeAnne Smith, Rosalynn's niece, who still lives in the house where her aunt grew up. Smith thought they would “at least go to Atlanta,” where they opened the Carter Center for their post-White House humanitarian work and defense of democracy.
“In the long run,” Smith said, “I think coming back and living here was, you know, their sanctuary and their place of peace and their place to rest and enjoy their home.”
Disappointed and even saddened by their early exit from Washington, the Carters plunged back into local life. They joined Maranatha Baptist Church, where Rosalynn Carter's final funeral will be held next Wednesday, November 29, after being members of Plains Baptist Church for most of their marriage.
Campbell, who attends the church in nearby Americas, noted that Rosalyn was instrumental in establishing a community-wide Thanksgiving food drive led by the Maranatha church. The last annual event was held the same weekend that Rosalynn died.
On Sunday evening, hours after her death, many members of the community gathered at Plains Methodist Church, where Rosalynn grew up and where the Carters were married, for the Thanksgiving week service.
“We had more than 400 people get food,” Campbell said. “She would be proud.”
Jeff Campbell, who helped his wife Linda decorate the downtown Christmas tree, recalled his years working for the National Park Service that preserved the historic Carter sites and their housing estate that will one day become part of the public exhibits.
“She was always very kind,” he said, though he laughed at her strict standards for how properties appeared.
“Sometimes we'd have a new guy who thought he knew better than Mrs. Rosaline,” Campbell said, noting that Rosaline was an accomplished gardener herself. “I would say to him, ‘Do this the way Mrs. Rosaline wants it and everything will be fine.'
Stuckey said Rosalynn has always balanced life as a global figure, traveling to dozens of countries as part of The Carter Center's work, as she was a willing participant in small-town life.
“I would hear someone come in and it would be President and Mrs. Carter for a ride,” Stuckey recalled. “Ma'am. Carter would sometimes come by herself and, you know, just want to know what's going on in town. They'd be gone for a while and they wanted to know how everyone was doing.”
As deep as the Carters' family and community ties in Sumter County, Rosalynn didn't distinguish between lifelong residents and those who came later to the Plains.
Phillip Kurland has been on the Plains about 30 years — less than a third of Rosalynn Carter's lifetime. He and his wife opened a political memorabilia shop downtown.
“They were both coming in” while taking regular walks or bike rides, he said. The former president always greeted customers, “but she would like to stay and have real conversations with everyone.”
Andrea Walker, another Plains transplant, befriended the Carters when she and her late husband built a house that bordered the “Carter complex,” as the locals call it.
Rosalynn found ways to escape the entrapment of the six-foot fence and Secret Service protection, sometimes slipping out without the agents' knowledge, Walker recalled. “She would jump in her golf cart, come over, make the putt and go in,” he said. Other times, agents gave neighbors a heads up.
“We would start pouring her margarita. we knew that was what he wanted,” Walker said. “She was just coming out of the pool right onto her icy rocks.”
It's obvious on the Plains that “everything is named after Jimmy,” but Buchanan said “we're making progress” on creating a bigger official presence for Rosalynn. Along with markers outside her childhood garden and the old Smith house where LeAnne Smith still lives, a “Butterfly Trail” features small gardens around the city, a nod to the former first lady's love of butterflies.
Because the former first lady – and eventually the former president – will be buried in the Plains, there will always be a draw for outsiders to help support the town that Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter made famous, townspeople said.
Said Stuckey, “They were thinking about the economic development of the Plains and tourism even in their death.”