Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s Love Story: From Small Town Sweethearts to the White House

In October 2019, a remarkable milestone was reached in American history as former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary. The Carters, who became the longest-married presidential couple in the United States, have shared a love story that spans over 75 years. Their journey, from humble beginnings in a small Georgia town to the White House and beyond, is a testament to the enduring power of love, commitment, and partnership.

Small-Town Beginnings

James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr., the 39th President of the United States, was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia. He was the eldest of James and Bessie “Lillian” Carter’s four children. James was a successful local businessman, and Lillian worked tirelessly as a nurse. The Carter family resided in and around Plains, a small town of approximately 600 people during Jimmy’s early years.

It was in Plains that the paths of Jimmy and Rosalynn first crossed. Neighbors of the Carter family, Wilbur and Allie Smith, welcomed their first child, Eleanor Rosalynn, into the world in 1927. Lillian Carter, Jimmy’s mother, assisted in the delivery of young Rosalynn. Just days after her birth, Rosalynn and the three-year-old Jimmy met for the very first time, setting the stage for a lifelong connection. Rosalynn later became a close childhood friend of Jimmy’s younger sister, Ruth.

In this circa 1950s photo, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter are surrounded by their sons (from left) Chip, Jack, and Jeff.

The Great Depression and Early Life

Like many parts of the United States, Plains was profoundly affected by the Great Depression. The Smiths faced economic hardships that only intensified when Rosalynn’s father passed away when she was just 13 years old. To support her family, Rosalynn began working alongside her mother, instilling in her the values of hard work and self-reliance. Despite her challenging responsibilities, Rosalynn excelled academically, graduating near the top of her high school class and aspiring to attend college, fulfilling her late father’s wishes.

Jimmy, too, was a diligent student with ambitions beyond Plains. Inspired by a maternal uncle who had attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, he set his sights on a career in the military.

The Blossoming of Love

While Rosalynn had known Jimmy throughout her life, it wasn’t until 1945 that their romance began to take shape. She was a freshman at Georgia Southwestern College, located near their hometown. Meanwhile, Jimmy, after completing stints at the same college and the Georgia Institute of Technology, had achieved his dream and was entering his final year at Annapolis. The town took pride in their native son, and Rosalynn had certainly taken notice of photographs of Jimmy in his military uniform displayed in his family home.

Jimmy’s return to Plains that summer marked a turning point in their relationship. One evening, when his plans with another girl fell through, he encountered his sister and Rosalynn walking down the street. In an impulsive moment, he asked her to the movies, and their first kiss sealed their fate. Jimmy was certain that he had met his future wife after that first date.

Their whirlwind courtship continued as they returned to school. That winter, Jimmy proposed to Rosalynn, who, initially concerned about the pace of their relationship, wished to finish her college education first. Eventually, she agreed, and during her visit to Annapolis in the spring, they became engaged. Jimmy presented her with a compact engraved with the letters “ILYTG,” signifying “I love you the goodest.” On July 7, 1946, the couple exchanged vows at the Plains Methodist Church, just weeks after Jimmy’s graduation.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on election night in 1976.

Adventures as a Military Family

Following their wedding, the Carters embarked on a series of moves typical of military life. Their first stop was Norfolk, Virginia, where Jimmy had his initial naval assignment. During this period, Rosalynn gave birth to the first of their four children. Subsequent deployments took them to various locations, including Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, before they settled in New York.

Rosalynn adapted seamlessly to the transient nature of military life and enjoyed her role as a naval wife. However, their lives took a significant turn when, in 1953, Jimmy decided to resign from the Navy and return to Plains to manage the family’s interests, including a peanut farm. Initially resistant to the idea of returning home, Rosalynn struggled to find her place in this new chapter of their lives. Their communication faltered, and she felt that the best part of her life had come to an end. It was only when she joined Jimmy in managing the farm, taking control of its finances, and helping it become profitable that she found her own role and achieved parity with her husband.

Entering the World of Politics

Having settled in Georgia, the Carters became actively engaged in their local community, both in civic and religious pursuits. Jimmy taught Sunday School at a local Baptist Church, a role he would continue for decades. In 1962, he won a seat in the Georgia State Senate. After an unsuccessful bid for Congress, Jimmy set his sights on the governorship in 1970. Overcoming her innate shyness, Rosalynn campaigned tirelessly on her husband’s behalf, crisscrossing the state. When Jimmy won the governorship, Rosalynn assumed the role of Georgia’s first lady, where she began her lifelong dedication to causes such as mental health.

The campaign trail beckoned once more when Jimmy announced his candidacy for the 1976 presidential election. Rosalynn visited more than 40 states, supporting her husband’s presidential bid. When Jimmy won the election, the Carters and their youngest child, Amy, relocated to the White House. In a departure from tradition, Rosalynn became a close advisor to her husband.

Jimmy, Rosalynn, and their extended family in late 70s or early 80s.

As the first lady, Rosalynn was the first presidential spouse to have her own office in the East Wing. She attended Cabinet meetings, offered counsel on staffing and personnel decisions, served as an envoy on international trips, and collaborated with former first ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson in the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment. The closeness of their partnership was such that Jimmy affectionately referred to Rosalynn, whom he had nicknamed “Rosa,” as a “perfect extension of himself.”

A Life of Service Beyond the White House

The Carters’ life of public service continued even after Jimmy’s presidency. Following his defeat in the 1980 election, the couple returned to their modest two-bedroom ranch house in Plains, where their political journey had begun. They remained committed to championing their cherished causes and engaging in humanitarian efforts, notably through the Carter Center and their work with Habitat for Humanity. Together, they played a role in building more than 4,000 homes across the globe. In 2002, Jimmy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of work in support of democracy and human rights.

In March 2019, Jimmy Carter became the longest-living president in American history, and later that year, on October 17, he and Rosalynn surpassed the record for the longest presidential marriage previously held by George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Their enduring love story has now spanned an impressive 77 years.

Jimmy and Rosalynn in 2015.

Challenges and Stronger Bonds

The Carters faced a significant challenge when Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer in 2015. The ordeal tested their bond, but it ultimately brought them closer together. Now, as they face Jimmy’s final days, the 98-year-old former president has been receiving hospice care at home since February. Their grandson, Jason Carter, shared, “They’re just meeting with family right now, but they’re doing it in the best possible way: the two of them together at home. Their faith is really grounding in this moment.”

The Carters have planned for what comes next. During Jimmy’s cancer treatment, they made arrangements to be buried side by side under a willow tree on the grounds of their house in Plains, where their extraordinary love story began.

The enduring love story of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter is a testament to the strength of their bond, their unwavering commitment to each other, and their shared dedication to making the world a better place. Through all the ups and downs, they have shown us that love, partnership, and service can truly stand the test of time.

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