I was sad to hear last week of Pres. Jimmy Carter’s diagnosis with metastatic liver cancer. While his prognosis has not been released, it cannot be good. The cancer has already spread and he is 90 years old.
But I’m reminded of the legacy that Carter will leave behind as he enters the twilight of his life. It’s a legacy of standing up for what’s right on the world stage and extending small kindnesses when no one is watching.
I first learned of Jimmy Carter when I was a child. My grandfather was good friends with Lester Maddox, a renowned segregationist, who by happenstance was elected Lieutenant Governor of Georgia in 1966. But prior to his political career, Maddox ran a restaurant on the south side of Atlanta, where my family often ate lunch with my grandfather on Sunday afternoons when I was growing up. Each time we arrived at the Pickrick Restaurant, Maddox was always at the front door greeting people.
Everyone except African Americans, of course.
For some reason he kept a pick handle over the cash register, and one day when a group of African Americans tried to integrate his restaurant, he took the pick handle down and used it to keep them away.
The Pickrick soon became a rallying site for segregationists and Maddox began handing out and then selling pick handles. He was a bit of a clown, which is why he was friends with my grandfather, but I was enamored with his new celebrity although I didn’t understand the background of it.
At the time, Jimmy Carter was a young senator from south Georgia speaking out against Maddox and segregation. When he ran for the position for Governor of Georgia in 1966 – the same year Maddox was elected Lieutenant Governor – he was elected.
I first met Carter when my school’s singing group was preparing for a tour of Europe. We went to the Governor’s office in order to be tapped as his “ambassadors.” Clearly, somebody knew somebody. I still have that picture somewhere. I had long hair, but so did Carter. After all, it was the early 70’s.
When Carter ran for President in 1976, my father was living in Jacksonville, Florida. He went to hear Carter speak at a Kiwanis meeting, and when Carter heard he was from Georgia he came over to him and said, “Bill, it looks really good.” At the time Carter only polled 2% of the vote. Somehow he actually won.
Over the years I have met Carter a number of times, mostly after he opened the Carter Center in Atlanta. While I realize that many people see him as somewhat arrogant and hard to read, I have one memory that will always stick with me. In 1992, the Church Health Center was on the verge of celebrating its fifth birthday. It just so happened that at this time, Rosalynn Carter was here in Memphis for a speaking engagement. I arranged for someone to pass her an invitation for her husband to speak at our event. Who knows? Maybe he would.
A few weeks passed. Finally, I received a handwritten note from Pres. Carter:
What you are doing is great! Under Dr. William Foege’s direction, The Carter Center will soon launch a nationwide effort to build on concepts like yours on churches and health.
I can’t attend your anniversary, but we’ll be learning from the video tape and your example.
He did not have to do that. But it was personal, it was handwritten, and it was warm. I framed it and it has hung on my wall ever since. His note reminds me of how one small gesture can mean so much.
I have actually spoken at the Carter Center a couple of times. One of the original five interests of the Carter Center was to emphasize the link between faith and health. President Carter actually cares a lot about this idea.
So while I would never say I actually know the president, I do think he has been a part of my life in more than a casual way. He is a very good man. He is complex but he cares deeply about his faith and his country. There is much we can learn from him, and my prayers are with him and his family during this difficult time.