We Met Jimmy Carter

What an honor, what a privilege, what a mind trip to meet the person whom we admire so deeply.

I die!

While sipping margaritas in Key West many years ago, Mac Daddy and I agreed to name our firstborn child after Jimmy Carter. Somehow Carter had come up in conversation, and we both reflected on how we admired the man, though our memory of his presidency was sketchy. Mac Daddy and I were just dating then, but after that conversation I knew I was going to marry him and have his babies.

I had written a letter to President Carter when he boycotted the 1980 Olympic games. I wrote to express my sadness for the athletes but told him I supported his decision as our President. He wrote back to me, including a signed photo and a note that reflected what I wrote, not canned Presidential rhetoric. (Years later I would beam with pride when 6 year old Deal wrote a letter to Barack Obama. He too received a lovely letter and signed photo.). Mac Daddy has read many of Jimmy Carter’s books and attributes Carter’s words to making a reader out of him. We have a shelf of Carter books in my office, along with other paraphernalia – campaign buttons, postcards, even a pennant. We have both been inspired by this man and revel in all his talents. But most of all, we marvel at his humility and grace. Carter’s presidency was marked by the hardship of the times, and his ideological mindset didn’t bode well.

From whitehouse.gov, “Jimmy Carter aspired to make Government ‘competent and compassionate,’ responsive to the American people and their expectations. His achievements were notable, but in an era of rising energy costs, mounting inflation, and continuing tensions, it was impossible for his administration to meet these high expectations.”

It’s been said that Jimmy Carter has been a better humanitarian than a president. All I know is that he is a remarkable man who sheds light on all he graces.

I speak from experience.

Mac Daddy and I did indeed name our firstborn after President Carter. We met him at book signing at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC when Bird was an infant. We pinned all our old campaign buttons onto the Baby Bjorn and walked in with a stack of books to be signed. President Carter graciously signed them all, including one for Bird, the only children’s book authored by Jimmy Carter (and illustrated by Amy). The Little Baby Snoogle-Fleejer.

While signing books, our conversation went something like this:

Jimmy Carter: “What’s the baby’s name?”

Mac Daddy (beaming, stuttering in awe): “He is your namesake. We named him after you.”

Jimmy Carter: “That’s a fine choice.” snicker snicker, cheeky smile

Mac Daddy: “May we take a picture, please?”

Jimmy Carter: looking up from signing to regard our boy, “Of course.”

At this point, secret service and the book handlers were swarming, rushing us along. They were chirping and shushing and waving about whilst laying their hands on the small of my back to guide me away. President Carter stopped them. He put up his hand and spoke ever so gently.

Jimmy Carter: “Now just give us a minute. Let these fine people have their picture made. We don’t need to rush them away.”

I gasped.

Mac Daddy swooned.

Click. Flash.

We thanked him profusely. He smiled and nodded.

He stayed until almost midnight signing books that night, turning no one away.

Fast forward almost nine years.

Mac Daddy and I had heard that Jimmy Carter teaches Sunday school every so often at his church in Plains, Georgia. The man is 87 years old, and we wanted to take our children to see him at a time they would have a memory of the experience. And admittedly, it was on our bucket list. Off we drove to Plains the day after school ended. It’s a long drive from Raleigh, and there might have been some bitching (not from the backseat…from me!). But oh, it was worth it in spades. Jimmy Carter is an active member of his church and lives in Plains with no airs. He is an avid woodworker and even crafted the cross hanging in his church as well as the offering plates. They are stunning in their simplicity.

We stood in line and had our bags and persons checked by secret service (all such lovely people, really). We sat in a pew in the sanctuary awaiting Jimmy Carter. We heard all the rules and regulations and standards of etiquette. Bird and Deal were extraordinarily patient as we waited for over an hour. We had good seats and didn’t endure a long line so our early arrival was well worth it. At last, President Carter emerged. He was full of vigor and humor, and his energy belied his 87 years. We snuck a peak at Rosalyn Carter too, resplendent in emerald green. Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school lesson was on Giving. Oh so appropriate. He talked about the spirit of giving and the value of giving just because it helps people, not to boost one’s own ego and station in life. He spoke of the life saving work of the Carter Center and noted the irony of tooting his own horn. He talked of giving in both bite size pieces and grandiose gestures. He spoke of the various interpretations of giving – time, money, energy, love, compassion. A certain sense of authenticity and earnestness resonated with every word. There were no airs, no attitude, no entitlement. President Carter even regaled us with a funny story of landing in Norway with a broken and rib pulling out his wallet to pay for medical treatment. They laughed and told him patients don’t pay for medical services. He chuckled as he told us this. Incidentally, he injured himself while moving some heavy equipment in his woodworking shop. Carter and his wife are scheduled to fly to Haiti (again) to build houses for Habitat for Humanity. The man does more in a day without collapsing than I do in a month. An inspiration indeed.

After Sunday school and church services, we lined up in extraordinarily orderly fashion to have a family photo taken. I told President Carter that we named our son after him. We were approaching the end of the line, yet he still smiled warmly and expressed interest in my words. Rosalyn (whom Jimmy Carter affectionately calls “Rosa”), even stepped away from her spot and eyed our boys asking which one was named for her husband. She smiled proudly and emitted such warmth. President Carter placed both hands on our son’s shoulders and said , “Take good care of my name.” It was an exchange I shall never forget. It is one Bird will recall fondly and appreciate when he is older. For now, we marvel at the experience and the opportunity for our firstborn to meet his namesake.

And an added bonus, our Christmas card photo is already snapped!