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‘She believed in us and took care of us’: Rosalynn Carter’s loved ones honor former first lady’s legacy in a tribute service

Rosalynn Carter’s family spoke of her “remarkable” journey during a moving tribute service for the former first lady in Atlanta on Tuesday, sharing memories of life at home, her loving relationship with former President Jimmy Carter and the lasting legacy she leaves behind as a tireless advocate for those who needed her help.

“My mother was the glue that held our family together, through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics. As individuals she believed in us and took care of us,” James Earl “Chip” Carter, said during the service, attended by US presidents and first ladies who served after her and her husband.

His mother was informed of any ongoing topics during her husband’s presidency and was always able to “speak with authority on issues across our country and the world,” he said.

“She told me that when dad started running for president, that the thing that she enjoyed the most were the people that she met across the country,” he said.

And he shared his mother was “influential” in helping him get treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, noting: “She saved my life.”

Guests arrive before a tribute service Tuesday for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University in Atlanta. - Brynn Anderson/Pool/Getty Images
Guests arrive before a tribute service Tuesday for former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University in Atlanta. - Brynn Anderson/Pool/Getty Images

Rosalynn Carter, who spent most of her life working on humanitarian projects alongside her husband and was a fierce advocate of mental health reform and destigmatizing mental illness, died on November 19 at the age of 96.

Kathryn Cade, Rosalynn Carter’s longtime aide, said the former first lady’s “compassion and empathy for those who are suffering was boundless; her passion for action even more so.”

The former first lady dedicated her life to alleviating the plight of other people – and other creatures, helping raise awareness for the endangered Monarch butterflies – and found joy in acts of service, Cade said.

“Today, we do indeed mourn a remarkable person, one of the truly good people in this world, may those of us who knew and loved her as a friend and colleague honor her life by building on her legacy of caring deeply for the most vulnerable among us,” she added.

Carter family, presidents attend service

Former President Jimmy Carter, who is 99 and receiving hospice care at home, was seated at the front row of the Atlanta church where the service took place. But he is “coming to the end of his life” and is “very physically diminished” and would not deliver any remarks, grandson Jason Carter said before the service.

“But we all know that he wouldn’t miss it for the world,” he added.

The casket of former first lady Rosalynn Carter is carried into the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church for a tribute service in Atlanta on Tuesday, November 28. - Will Lanzoni/CNN
The casket of former first lady Rosalynn Carter is carried into the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church for a tribute service in Atlanta on Tuesday, November 28. - Will Lanzoni/CNN

The former president’s daughter, Amy Lynn Carter, was seen holding her father’s hand.

“My mom spent most of her life in love with my dad,” Amy Carter said during the service. “Their partnership and love story was a defining feature of her life.”

Because her father couldn’t speak during the service, his daughter shared a letter he wrote to Rosalynn Carter 75 years ago, while serving in the Navy. In it, he said: “My darling, every time I have ever been away from you, I’ve been thrilled when I returned to discover just how wonderful you are.”

“When I see you, I fall in love with you all over again,” he wrote. The Carters were married for more than 77 years.

Their sons John William “Jack” Carter and Donnel Jeffrey “Jeff” Carter were also at the service and 11 of their living grandchildren were expected to attend.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton and former first ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, and Melania Trump were in attendance.

President Joe Biden looks on as First Lady Jill Biden speaks with former President Bill Clinton before the tribute service in Atlanta. - Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
President Joe Biden looks on as First Lady Jill Biden speaks with former President Bill Clinton before the tribute service in Atlanta. - Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Raphael Warnock, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens were also among those at the tribute service. Rosalynn Carter’s surviving grandchildren were to serve as honorary pallbearers, the Carter Center said.

Tuesday’s invite-only service was planned to be exactly what the former first lady had envisioned, Jason Carter told CNN earlier in the day, saying she designed the program herself before she died.

Private funeral service set for Wednesday

Ceremonies honoring Rosalynn Carter’s life and legacy began across Georgia on Monday, with a motorcade traveling from her small hometown of Plains to Atlanta, where she laid in repose for several hours as hundreds came to pay their respects.

On the way to Atlanta, the former first lady’s motorcade made a few brief stops, including at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, where officials laid wreaths at a bronze statue dedicated to her.

Rosalynn Carter founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers on the school’s campus to help advocate for the support of those caring for their loved ones.

Her motorcade departed Tuesday morning from the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, and made a short drive to Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University, where the tribute service took place.

Tuesday’s service featured some of Rosalynn Carter’s favorite scripture passages and songs, according to the center. Country musicians Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, who have participated in Habitat for Humanity projects in honor of the Carters, performed John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

On Wednesday morning, a private funeral service for family and invited friends is scheduled to take place at the Carters’ beloved Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where the couple lived since their return from the White House in 1981.

Wife, mother, political strategist, advocate

In the days since her death, family members and leaders from across the United States remembered Rosalynn Carter as a lifelong humanitarian and a passionate advocate for a number of causes, including mental health and caregiving – and that legacy was vividly reflected in the speeches given at her tribute service.

“What a remarkable woman she was: wife, mother, business manager, political strategist, diplomat, advocate, author,” Cade, her aide, said.

From a young age, she joined the fight against racial discrimination, advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment and, later on, worked to ensure women were represented in government, Cade added.

Among the issues she was most passionate about were mental health reform, providing support for caregivers, childhood immunization, problems faced by the elderly and addressing neglected tropical diseases, Cade said. She began her work on many of those issues in the White House, but continued it for decades after.

“Her advocacy for mental health was a 50-year climb,” Jason Carter said during the tribute service. “If you imagine just how far our society has come in the last five years on issues of mental health and you think that she decided in 1970 to tackle the ancient stigma associated with mental illness.”

“It is remarkable how far she could see and how far she was willing to walk,” he said. “And that effort changed lives and it saved lives – including in my own family.”

Side by side, the Carters revolutionized the post-presidency, creating the Carter Center and working toward world peace and human rights on behalf of the nonprofit.

The two traveled to hot spots around the world, including Cuba, Sudan and North Korea, monitoring elections and working to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other neglected tropical diseases.

Before the center began leading the Guinea Worm Eradication Program in 1986, there were roughly 3.5 million human cases, according to the nonprofit. In 2022, just 13 human cases were reported.

“We’re in the last mile, because she could see far, and she kept going, was not afraid of these long journeys,” her grandson said.

“She was made for these long journeys.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers, Eva McKend, Nick Valencia and Jaide Timm-Garcia contributed to this story.

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