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'My equal partner in everything': Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter's 77-year marriage

Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter receives a kiss from his wife Rosalynn Carter after a press conference in Plains, Ga., in Oct. 2002.
Steve Schaefer
AFP via Getty Images
Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter receives a kiss from his wife Rosalynn Carter after a press conference in Plains, Ga., in Oct. 2002.

They met when he was 3 and she was just 1 day old. They'd go on to be married for 77 years — the longest married couple in presidential history.

By their own accounts, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter weren't just spouses, but full partners who counted their relationship as their greatest achievement. Their bond endured a tumultuous single term in the White House, Jimmy's fight with cancer and a long post-presidency life marked by modest living and community service.

Rosalynn died on Sunday at the age of 96, leaving Jimmy, the oldest surviving president at age 99, without his wife for the first time since his teenage years.

"Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished," the former president wrote in a statement. "She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it."

"As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me," he added.

Jimmy knew he wanted to marry Rosalynn after their first date

The pair grew up just 3 miles apart in Plains, Ga.

Jimmy's mother was a nurse who helped care for Rosalynn and, in a town without too many boys, Rosalynn soon became best friends with Jimmy's younger sister.

"I thought he was the most handsome young man I had ever seen," she wrote in her memoir, First Lady from Plains. She said she conspired unsuccessfully for years to try to get him to notice her.

It wasn't until 1945, at the ages of 20 and 17, that they had their first date. He was home from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., and she'd just finished her first year at Georgia Southwestern College.

They can't remember what movie they saw, but Jimmy did remember that Rosalynn was beautiful, shy and intelligent. He recalled the feeling of falling in love in a poem he wrote in his 1995 book, Always a Reckoning:

"I'd pay to sit behind her, blind to

what was on the screen, and watch the image flicker

upon her hair."

The morning after their date, Jimmy told his mother that she was the girl he wanted to marry.

But when he proposed a few months later, she said no.

Rosalynn had promised her father on his deathbed that she wouldn't marry until she finished college. She continued to date other men while she worked on her degree.

But Jimmy kept writing and calling, assuring her he was serious. And by summer, with graduation behind her, she accepted his proposal. They married on July 7, 1946.

In later years, the spouses became each other's caregivers

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter regularly donated their time to humanitarian causes, including Habitat for Humanity.
Erik S. Lesser / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter regularly donated their time to humanitarian causes, including Habitat for Humanity.

The Carters became the longest married couple in presidential history in 2019, when they bested the 73-year record held by the late George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush.

At 77 years, the Carter marriage lasted longer than the lifespans of more than half of all U.S. presidents.

It's hard to imagine another presidential couple beating that milestone anytime soon. The Obamas, for example, would need to live to be 108 (Barack) and 105 (Michelle) to make it to 77 years of marriage.

Jimmy credited his relationship as the secret to his long life and vitality. He described committing to Rosalynn as more important than anything he did as commander in chief or even as a Navy executive officer during the years of the Cold War.

"My biggest secret is to marry the right person," Jimmy told The Associated Press in 2021.

But not everything was smooth sailing. When Carter failed his 1980 reelection bid and his father died, he made the decision to move the family back to their tiny hometown of Plains without telling Rosalynn. She resented the decision for years, the AP reported.

The former Democratic president famously declined to join corporate boards or give big paid speeches, instead opting for a modest life in the same house where he and Rosalynn lived before their presidency.

The pair spent their days committed to community service and humanitarian work through the Carter Center in Atlanta, Habitat for Humanity and their local church.

In later years, they became each other's chief caregivers. Rosalynn was at Jimmy's side when he entered hospice care in February. He was at her side when the family announced in May that she had dementia.

The Carters marked their 75th wedding anniversary with a party at their old high school. They amassed a long list of shared hobbies, like playing tennis, bird-watching, turkey hunting, fly-fishing and skiing.

The couple took daily walks around their neighborhood and were often spotted smiling, laughing and holding hands.

A version of this article was first published in 2021.

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Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
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