One of the longest-married presidential couples in American history, Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were hometown sweethearts whose seven-decade relationship saw them travel from their rural roots to the highest office in the land.
Jimmy and Rosalynn came from a Georgia town of 600 people
Born in 1924 (the first president to be born in a hospital), James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr. was the eldest of James and Bessie “Lillian” Carter’s four children. James was a successful local businessman, and Lillian worked long hours as a nurse. The Carters raised their family in and around Plains, Georgia, a small town of approximately 600 people at the time of Jimmy’s birth. A good student, Jimmy harbored dreams of moving beyond Plains, and, inspired by a maternal uncle who had attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, set his sights on a military career.
Wilbur and Allie Smith were neighbors of the Carters, and in the summer of 1927, Lillian helped deliver their first child, Eleanor Rosalynn. Like elsewhere in America, the Great Depression hit Plains hard, and the Smiths’ already fragile economic situation worsened when Rosalynn’s father died when she was 13. She began working to support the family alongside her mother, who held a series of jobs, impressing on her daughter the importance of hard work and independence. Despite her workload, Rosalynn was also an excellent student, graduating near the top of her high school class and set on attending college, fulfilling her father’s wishes for his children.
Jimmy knew he was going to marry Rosalynn after their first date
Rosalynn was a close childhood friend of Ruth Carter, Jimmy’s younger sister. Though she had known Jimmy all her life, it wasn’t until 1945 that romance blossomed. Rosalynn was a freshman at nearby Georgia Southwestern College. Jimmy, following stints at that same school and the Georgia Institute of Technology, had fulfilled his dream and was entering his final year at Annapolis. The town was proud of their native son, and as Rosalynn would later write, she had taken notice of photos of Carter in his military uniform at his family home.
When Jimmy returned home that summer, he too took notice of the pretty, shy 17-year-old. One night, when plans with another girl fell through, Jimmy spotted his sister and Rosalynn walking down the street, and impulsively asked her to the movies, after which the two shared their first kiss. Jimmy was immediately smitten after their first date, telling his mother that he had met his future wife.
The whirlwind courtship continued when they both returned to school, and that winter, Jimmy proposed. Initially concerned about how fast the relationship was moving and wishing to finish college first, Rosalynn said no. But Jimmy persisted, and when Rosalynn visited Annapolis that spring they became engaged, with Jimmy gifting her a compact engraved with the letters “ILYTG,” an acronym for a Carter family saying, “I love you the goodest.” The couple were married at the Plains Methodist Church on July 7, 1946, just weeks after Jimmy’s graduation.
The Carters spent their early married years on the move
Shortly after their wedding, the Carters moved to Norfolk, Virginia for Jimmy’s first naval assignment, where Rosalynn would give birth to the first of the couples’ four children. Subsequent deployments took the family to Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, before they put down roots in New York state.
Rosalynn adapted easily to the frequent moves and enjoyed her time as a naval wife. When Jimmy’s father died in 1953, and he decided to resign from the Navy and return home to run the family’s interests, including a peanut farm, Rosalynn initially balked, unhappy with the prospect of returning home to Plains. As Jimmy later wrote in a memoir, communication between the two broke down, as Rosalynn "avoided talking to me as much as possible.”
She would later describe this period as one of the rockiest in their marriage, saying she believed, “the best part of my life had ended,” as she struggled to find her own role and to put herself on equal footing with her husband. She eventually found both when she began helping Jimmy run the farm, taking over the business’s finances and helping it turn a profit.
Rosalynn played an important role in Jimmy’s political career
Now settled in Georgia, the couple became involved in the civic and religious communities, with Jimmy teaching Sunday School at a local Baptist Church (a role he continues to this day). In 1962, he won a seat in the Georgia State Senate, and following an unsuccessful run for Congress, set his sights on the governorship in 1970. Overcoming her shy nature, Rosalynn campaigned tirelessly on her husband’s behalf, crisscrossing the state. Jimmy’s victory saw her take on a new role as Georgia’s first lady, where she began working on causes she would champion for the rest of her life, including mental illness.
She took to the campaign trail again when Carter announced his candidacy for the 1976 presidential election, visiting more than 40 states. When Carter won, they and their youngest child, Amy, moved to the White House, where Rosalynn, breaking with tradition, became a close advisor to her husband. She was the first presidential spouse to have her own office in the East Wing, sitting in on Cabinet meetings, advising on staff and personnel moves, serving as an envoy on overseas trips, and joining with former first ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson in the unsuccessful effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. So closely aligned were the couple that Jimmy referred to Rosalynn, who he’d nicknamed “Rosa,” as a “perfect extension of himself.”
They continued their work together in the post-presidency years
Carter’s 1980 re-election defeat was devastating to both Jimmy and Rosalynn. They returned home to Georgia to the modest two-bedroom ranch house in Plains where they’d lived before Carter had scaled the political heights. The couple continued to champion their causes and humanitarian efforts, through both the Carter Center and their work with Habitat for Humanity, through which they built more than 4,000 homes around the world. In 2002, Jimmy was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his decades of work supporting democracy and human rights.
In March 2019, Jimmy became the longest-living president in American history, and the couple prepared to mark their 73 anniversary that year. Jimmy 2015 cancer diagnosis shook the couple, who later said in interviews that the ordeal had brought them even closer together, noting plans for them both to be buried under a willow tree on the grounds of their house in Plains, where their stories began.