ATLANTA—Rosalynn Carter was remembered Tuesday as a former U.S. first lady who leveraged her fierce intellect and political power to put her deep Christian faith into action by always helping others, especially those who needed it most.
A gathering of first ladies and presidents—including her 99-year-old husband Jimmy Carter—joined other political figures in tribute.
“She had met kings and queens, presidents, others in authority, powerful corporate leaders and celebrities,” her son James Earl “Chip” Carter III said. “She said the people that she felt the most comfortable with and the people she enjoyed being with the most were those that lived in absolute abject poverty, the ones without adequate housing, without a proper diet and without access to health care.”
The service was held during three days of events celebrating the humanitarian who died Nov. 19 at home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96. Tributes began Monday in the Carters’ native Sumter County and continued at Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta. Her funeral and burial are planned for Wednesday in her small hometown.
Jimmy Carter, who is 10 months into home hospice care, watched from his wheelchair, reclining and covered by a blanket featuring his wife’s face. Chip and his sister, Amy, held their father’s hands and were flanked by their brothers, Jeff and Jack.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden, the Carters’ longtime friends, joined them in the front row, along with former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the other living former first ladies, Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, and Laura Bush. Vice President Kamala Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff paid their respects, as did Georgia’s U.S. senators and Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife, Marty.
More than 1,000 people, including a sizeable contingent of Secret Service agents, filled the sanctuary. Former Presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush were invited but did not attend.
“My mother was the glue that held our family together through the ups and downs and thicks and thins of our family’s politics,” Chip Carter said.
The pews filled with political power players, but front and center were her children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren—all surrounding Jimmy Carter, her partner of 77 years.
“Their partnership and love story was a defining feature of her life,” said Amy Carter, who read a love note her father wrote to her mother 75 years ago.
Journalist Judy Woodruff recalled Rosalynn Carter lobbying lawmakers, campaigning separately from her husband, attending Cabinet meetings and playing key roles—including being the first presidential adviser to suggest Camp David as a negotiating place for Epypt’s Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Menachem Begin. Those negotiations led to historic peace accords between the two countries.
“Without Rosalynn Carter, I don’t believe there would have been a President Carter,” Ms. Woodruff said.
It was Jimmy Carter’s first public appearance since he entered hospice care, other than a brief ride with Rosalynn in September’s Plains Peanut Festival parade, where they were visible only through the open windows of a Secret Service vehicle. He was with his wife during her final hours but did not appear publicly during earlier events at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, and at his presidential library.
“He never wants to be very far from her,” Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander said. The trip to Atlanta was “hard” for the former president but “this is her last trip up and it’s probably his, too,” she added. “He’s determined.”
The Carters married in 1946 and became the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history. Jimmy Carter is the longest-lived president; Rosalynn Carter was the second-longest lived first lady, trailing only Bess Truman, who died at 97.
Family members described how Rosalynn Carter went from growing up in a small town where she had never spoken to a group larger than her Sunday school class to being a global figure who visited more than 120 countries.
Kathryn Cade, who stayed on as a close adviser as Rosalynn Carter helped build The Carter Center and its global reach, called Rosalynn Carter’s time as first lady “really just one chapter in a life that was about caring for others.”
Praised for her half-century of advocating for better mental health care in America and reducing stigmas attached to mental illness, she brought attention to the tens of millions of people who work as unpaid caregivers in U.S. households and was acclaimed for how integral she was to her husband’s political rise and his terms as Georgia’s governor and the 39th president.
Mr. Chip Carter recalled how his mother got him into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction.
“My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever met,” he said. “And pretty to look at, too.”
Jason Carter, her grandson, got laughs as he acknowledged the “remarkable sisterhood” of the first ladies in attendance, and then greeted the “lovely husbands” of Hillary Clinton and Jill Biden.
“She was so down to earth, y’all, it was amazing,” Mr. Jason Carter said as he shared family stories, including the time when his grandmother made pimento cheese sandwiches and handed them out on a Delta flight.
“She loved people,” he said. “She was a cool grandma.”
Though President Biden didn’t speak at the service, he and his wife “shared a private moment” with President Jimmy Carter beforehand, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
President Biden and the first lady “were able to express their condolences directly to the Carter family,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said, adding that the Bidens hold “the entire Carter family close to their hearts.”
Rosalynn Carter’s funeral will take place Wednesday in Plains, with an invitation-only service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the Carters have been members since returning to Georgia after his presidency. She will be buried after a private graveside service in a plot the couple will share, visible from the front porch of the home they built before President Carter’s first political campaign in 1962.