Even though Buffalo, New York, native Suzanne Taylor was aware that 98-year-old former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s health was failing, the news that he was entering hospice care at his Plains, Georgia, home still came as a shock.
“I have to admit that I cried at breakfast,” she told VOA during a Skype interview. “That was a little bit of a wake-up call for me, that we are going to lose him at some point.”
Between 2006 and 2019, Taylor was among hundreds of volunteers who worked alongside Carter and his wife Rosalynn on their annual Habitat for Humanity Work Project, building homes around the world for those in need.
“So many people really appreciate him,” she said. “He’s had such an impact, and it’s going to be so hard to close that chapter.”
Author Jonathan Alter agrees.
“It was sad because he has led such an epic American life,” he said.
Alter spent five years writing a biography about Jimmy Carter titled “His Very Best” that allowed him to interview and observe the former president before his health declined.
“When you take stock of his life, he won at life. Ninety-eight years — longest-lived president — married for close to 77 years — happily,” Alter explained to VOA during a recent Skype interview.
“I think that it is fitting that Jimmy Carter is ending his journey on his own terms. He was the first American president ever born in the hospital, but he doesn’t want to die in the hospital. So, he is going home to the home that he and Rosalynn built in 1961 that has an assessed valuation of about $160,000. And that gives you some sense of his modesty, in which he built most of the furniture. He is preparing to die in the town of 660 people in which he was born. There is a kind of circularity to that.”
After Carter, a Democrat, lost the presidency in a resounding defeat in 1980 to Republican Ronald Reagan, Alter said Carter’s increased popularity came through his volunteerism with Habitat for Humanity, his efforts to promote peace and fight neglected tropical diseases through the programs of the Carter Center, and as the voice of a seasoned politician and elder statesman.
“Historians and people who want a fuller picture need to look at how a president changed the world, changed people’s lives, and that’s a different kind of assessment that takes longer and is not really directly connected to his popularity as president,” said Alter.
“This is a guy, even though he was in business and thought about the bottom line plenty in the years before he was president, spent most of his life thinking about what could he do to improve the lives of other people. And that’s still extraordinarily rare.”
Carter’s popularity was also boosted in the decades after he left the White House by traveling the country autographing and promoting the dozens of books he wrote. And by hosting crowds and taking pictures with scores of visitors to his small church in Plains, Georgia, during his semi-regular Sunday School lessons, where one day after the announcement of his decision to enter hospice care, Carter’s niece Kim Fuller led the congregation in prayer.
“I think at this time in all of our lives, and in the lives of those we love very much who are going through this today and will be going through it, that maybe if we think about it, maybe it’s time to pass the baton,” Fuller told those attending in person, and others watching the church’s live feed on Facebook. “Who will pick it up, I have no clue, because this baton is going to be a really big one,” she said.
Taylor joined thousands more around the globe sharing messages of support for the 39th U.S. president and his family in the wake of his health announcement.
“I am hearing from so many people who have met him, who went to his Sunday School, who went to the Carter Center events. … Both Rosalynn and Jimmy are accessible and gracious, and people feel like they really got to know him,” said Taylor, which is why she believes the news of his deteriorating health is that much harder for many to accept.
“I think his accessibility has created a bond with a lot of Americans that most presidents don’t have. I think that is why it’s more difficult to let him go, that people feel more connected to him in a different way,” she said.