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Former first lady Rosalynn Carter dead at 96 after family announced dementia battle, entered hospice with Jimmy

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Former first lady Rosalynn Carter – the Georgia-born humanitarian, champion of mental health and wife of 39th President Jimmy Carter – died on Sunday at the age of 96.

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Her family announced in May 2023 that she had been diagnosed with dementia and she later joined the former president on hospice care at their Plains home in November.

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Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in the small town of Plains, Georgia — the same town as her future husband — on Aug. 18, 1927, and was the eldest of four children.

When she was just 13 years old, her father died from leukemia, forcing her mother to work as a dressmaker to support her children, according to her official White House biography.

Despite having to help out at home as the oldest daughter, Carter continued her studies and graduated high school and eventually from Georgia Southwestern College.

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She had her first date with Jimmy Carter, a longtime family friend, in 1945 while he was home from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. 

“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after that first outing with 17-year-old Rosalynn.

Former first lady Rosalyn Carter died at 96.
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Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter married in 1946 after being longtime family friends.
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President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter dance at a White House Congressional Ball in 1977.
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They were married in 1946, and after moving around to several cities to support Jimmy’s career in the Navy, settled back in Plains after his father died in 1953 and took control of the family peanut farm, where Rosalynn managed the accounts.

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She helped Jimmy’s political campaigns for Georgia state Senate in 1962, his gubernatorial bid for governor in 1970 and eventually his run for the White House in 1977.

As first lady, she was a strong presence in the White House — dubbed by the DC Press as “the Steel Magnolia” for her uniquely strong nature mixed with the stereotypical grace of a Southern political wife.

She expanded the role of the first lady, working out of her own office in the East Wing, with her own staff, on her own initiatives. She also sat in on top-level meetings with the president’s advisers, raising eyebrows among the capital’s elite.

Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976.
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Rosalynn Carter spent her life advocating for mental health awareness
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Carter biographer Jonathan Alter told the Associated Press that Rosalynn was a silent presence at most cabinet meetings, listening intently to provide Jimmy with sound advice.

She launched her own agenda to compliment her husband’s dedication to the less fortunate, including campaigning for those with disabilities, women’s rights issues and, most famously, for pushing back on society’s stigma of mental health issues.

She served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, which worked to pass the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.

Alter said he considers her active role as first lady comparable to Eleanor Roosevelt and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but noted her relationship with her husband seemed less strained than the others.

Rosalynn’s activism continued after she left the White House in 1981. She founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers in 1987, which promotes the mental health and well-being of family caregivers.

She authored five books, including her 1984 auto-biography she co-wrote with her husband about their life after politics, “First Lady from Plains; Everything To Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.”

The Carters celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in their hometown of Plains, Georgia, in 2021.

Rosalynn entered in-home hospice care at the couple’s longtime Plains home on Nov. 17, 2023, nearly nine months to the day Jimmy did after he had a series of hospital stays.

The couple were “spending time with each other and their family,” their grandson Jason Carter, said in an announcement released by the Carter Center.

The Carters made a rare public appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival on Sept. 23, 2023, just days before the former commander in chief’s 99th birthday. Video showed them rolling through town in the back of a black SUV.

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