World

Rosalynn Carter honoured by family, friends, US first ladies and presidents

The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter inside Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta (Andrew Harnik/AP)
The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter inside Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta (Andrew Harnik/AP) The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter inside Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Rosalynn Carter was memorialised as a matriarch who felt most comfortable among the impoverished and vulnerable as she was mourned by a rare gathering of all living US first ladies and multiple presidents, including her 99-year-old husband Jimmy Carter.

The tribute service marked the second day of a three-day schedule of public events celebrating the former first lady and global humanitarian who died on November 19 at home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96.

Tributes began on Monday in the Carters’ native Sumter County and continued at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta.

“My mother was the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics,” her son James Earl “Chip” Carter III said.

Attendees are seated before a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta
Attendees are seated before a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta The service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter was held at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Former president Jimmy Carter, who is 10 months into home hospice care and had not been seen in public since September, watched from his wheelchair, reclining and covered by a blanket featuring his wife’s face, with Chip and his daughter Amy holding his hands.

Their other sons, Jeff and Jack, flanked them.

“He never wants to be very far from her,” Carter Centre chief executive Paige Alexander said.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, their longtime friends, joined them in the front row, along with former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush.

Former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton arrive to attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta
Former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton arrive to attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta Former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Vice president Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff paid their respects, as did Georgia’s US senators and governor Brian Kemp and his wife Marty.

More than 1,000 people, including a sizeable contingent of Secret Service agents, filled the sanctuary.

Former presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W Bush were invited but will not attend.

The service reflected Rosalynn Carter’s status as a global figure while emphasising her more private profile as a family matriarch who preferred a simple life and held a deep religious faith.

“She had met kings and queens, presidents, others in authority, powerful corporate leaders and celebrities,” Chip Carter said.

“She said the people that she felt the most comfortable with and the people she enjoyed being with the most were those that lived in absolute abject poverty.”

The pews filled with political power players, but front and centre were her children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren – all surrounding Jimmy Carter, who grieved not as a former president, but as her partner of 77 years.

Former president Jimmy Carter arrives to attend a tribute service for his wife and former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta
Former president Jimmy Carter arrives to attend a tribute service for his wife and former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta Former president Jimmy Carter at the tribute service for his wife and former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church (Andrew Harnik/AP)

The speakers came from many chapters of her long life: Chip as the son who recalled his once-shy mother coming into her own in business and politics; Kathryn Cade as the White House aide who stayed on as a close adviser as Rosalynn Carter helped build The Carter Centre and its global reach; Judy Woodruff as a journalist who covered the Carter presidency; and Amy Carter, who read a love note her father wrote to her mother 75 years before.

“Their partnership and love story was a defining feature of her life,” Amy Carter said.

Ms Cade described Rosalynn Carter’s time as first lady as “really just one chapter in a life that was about caring for others”.

Ms Woodruff recalled Rosalynn Carter lobbying legislators, campaigning separately from her husband, attending cabinet meetings and playing key roles – including being the first presidential adviser to suggest Camp David as a negotiating place for Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin.

The decision led to historic peace accords between the two countries.

“Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter,” Ms Woodruff said.

It was Jimmy Carter’s first public appearance since entering hospice care, other than a brief ride with Rosalynn in September’s Plains Peanut Festival parade, where they were visible only through the open windows of a Secret Service vehicle.

He was with his wife during her final hours, but did not appear publicly during earlier events at Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, and at his presidential library.

The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter arrives inside Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta
The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter arrives inside Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta The coffin of former first lady Rosalynn Carter arrives inside Glenn Memorial Church (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Ms Alexander said the trip to Atlanta was “hard” for the former president but “this is her last trip up and it’s probably his, too… He’s determined”.

The Carters married in 1946 and became the longest-married presidential couple in US history.

Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived president; Rosalynn Carter was the second-longest lived first lady, trailing only Bess Truman, who died aged 97.

Praised for half a century of advocacy for better mental health care in America and reducing stigmas attached to mental illness, she brought attention to the tens of millions of people who work as unpaid caregivers in US households, and was acclaimed for how integral she was to her husband’s political rise and in his terms as Georgia’s governor and the 39th president.

Chip Carter recalled how his mother got him into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.

“My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever met,” he said.

“And pretty to look at, too.”

President Joe Biden, left, first lady Jill Biden, for President Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton, right, arrive to attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta
President Joe Biden, left, first lady Jill Biden, for President Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton, right, arrive to attend a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta President Joe Biden, left, first lady Jill Biden, former president Bill Clinton and former first lady Hillary Clinton, right, arrive at the tribute service for Rosalynn Carter (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Jason Carter, her grandson, got laughs as he acknowledged the “remarkable sisterhood” of the first ladies in attendance, and then greeted the “lovely husbands” of Hillary Clinton and Jill Biden.

“She was so down to earth, y’all, it was amazing,” Jason Carter said as he shared family stories, including the time when his grandmother made pimento sandwiches and handed them out on a Delta flight.

“She loved people,” he said.

“She was a cool grandma.”

Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood perform Imagine at a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University in Atlanta
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood perform Imagine at a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University in Atlanta Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks perform Imagine at a tribute service for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial Church (Brynn Anderson, Pool/AP)

Country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, family friends of the Carters and their successors as Habitat for Humanity ambassadors, performed a rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine towards the end of the service.

Rosalynn Carter’s funeral will take place on Wednesday in Plains, with an invitation-only service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters have been members since returning to Georgia after his presidency.

She will be buried after a private graveside service on a plot the couple will share, visible from the front porch of the home they built before Jimmy Carter’s first political campaign in 1962.