The former first lady who dedicated her life to mental health and human rights advocacy died at her Plains, Georgia, home on Sunday afternoon, two days after entering hospice care
Rosalynn Carter, a lifelong advocate for mental health and human rights, died surrounded by family on Sunday afternoon, two days after she entered hospice care following a dementia diagnosis in May. She was 96.
Rosalynn was married to the nation’s 39th president, Jimmy Carter, for 77 years, and served as the first lady during his tenure from 1977 to 1981. She is survived by their four children and numerous grandchildren and great-children. Jimmy, who terminated medical intervention in February amid his own health challenges at the age of 99, remains in hospice care at home.
Related: Rosalynn Carter's Life in Photos
Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in Plains, Georgia, on Aug. 18, 1927, the future first lady was the oldest of four children, and took on many of the family responsibilities after her father died of leukemia when she was just 13.
After graduating high school, she attended Georgia Southwestern College in nearby Americus. It was after her freshman year in 1945 that she met the former president, who was back home in Plains from the U.S. Naval Academy. They were wed the following year.
Throughout the early years of their marriage, the Carters traveled while Jimmy was stationed with the Navy around the country — from Virginia to Hawaii to Connecticut.
In 1953, they returned back to Plains, when Jimmy left the Navy to take over his father’s peanut and fertilizer business with Rosalynn's help.
Rosalynn was a driving force behind her husband’s initial forays into politics, helping him eventually get elected as governor of Georgia in 1970.
As first lady during Jimmy's eventual tenure as president, she served as the honorary chair of the President’s Commission on Mental Health, eventually helping usher through the 1980 passage of the Mental Health Systems Act. She was also a champion of arts and arts programs and a frequent adviser to her husband.
After leaving the White House, the Carters started nonprofit institution The Carter Center, a health and human rights organization. Rosalynn chaired the center’s Mental Health Task Force and served as a member of the Carter Center Board of Trustees.
She also served as a distinguished centennial lecturer at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, from 1988 to 1992.
"For anybody who wants to get involved with an organization, there is nothing that they could do that would give them such a life-changing experience as Habitat," Rosalynn once said. "This is something that brings together people who have everything they need and those who don't have so many things we take for granted."
Until recent years, Jimmy and Rosalynn were known to continue showing up to construction projects and helping out with hands-on work.
In 1991, Rosalynn began serving on the Policy Advisory Board of The Atlanta Project, working to address poverty in the state capital.
The same year, she launched Every Child By Two, a campaign geared toward raising awareness of the importance of timely infant immunizations (decades later, when the COVID-19 vaccination came out, she and the former president were vocal about getting vaccinated against the virus as misinformation spread through the country).
Rosalynn wrote five books throughout her life, and was the recipient of numerous honors from organizations like the National Organization of Women and the National Mental Health Association.
President Bill Clinton awarded Rosalynn the Presidential Medal of Freedom alongside her husband in 1999, remarking, "Just as Eleanor Roosevelt will be remembered for her work on human rights, Rosalynn Carter will always be remembered as a pioneer on mental health and a champion of our children. ... Thanks to her work, I believe we will see the day not too long away when mental illnesses are treated just like any other illnesses and covered just like any other illnesses."
The former first lady was also inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2001.
In 2014, the Carters sat down with PEOPLE to reflect on their life together, revealing one of the secrets of their enduring romance: They still read to each other every night in bed.
Said the former president, “We started 40 years ago, and we’ve never missed a night, I don’t think.”
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