Presidential Mothers: Lillian Carter marched to her own drumbeat

Published 10:36 am Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

Lillian Gordy Carter, the mother of the 39th President of the United States, James Earl Carter Jr., who was called Jimmy, marched to a different drum beat from that of most others.

Lillian Gordy was born into large family of Scottish decent in Southwestern Georgia. There were 13 people in the Gordy household, parents, grandparents, siblings, and two orphaned cousins, which showed Lillian early on that all people of all ages should be treated with care.

Lillian’s father, James Jackson Gordy, called Jim Jack, was the postmaster in Richland, Ga., about 20 miles from Plains.  Jim Jack went out of his way to treat everyone, black and white, equally.

The book, “First Mothers” by Bonnie Angelo, says: “Jim Jack treated blacks with kindness and a remarkable degree of equality, sometimes fetching meals from the hotel which blacks were not allowed to enter, and bringing them back to the post office, where he and local black leaders then ate lunch together in the back room.”  Knowing something of world in which Lillian grew up allows one to better understand why the Jimmy Carter’s mother, who said “I’m the most liberal woman in the county, maybe the whole state,” marched to a different drum beat.

Lillian decided early that she wanted to be a nurse.  Her father disapproved of her choice. It did not deter Lillian. Lillian went to Plains, Ga., and, in the hospital there, got her training.  Lillian probably should have been a doctor, but women were barred from medical schools.

Before she finished training, Lillian met James Earl Carter in Plains. Lillian did not like his looks, but his courtly manner and easy laugh won the heart of the young nursing student.  After courting for two years, they got engaged, but “Mr. Earl,” as he was called, insisted that Lillian finish her nurses’ training.  With her training finished, 25-year-old Lillian and 30-year-old Earl were married in the Baptist’s preacher’s study. That was the beginning of a happy marriage of two people with different personalities, both of whom never minded hard work if it was lightened by laughter.  Lillian and Earl loved baseball and they loved to dance. Even though both Liworked hard, they found time to enjoy their favorite pastimes. They scheduled vacation so they could attend a major league baseball game.

From the time she was married, and even after she became the mother of four children, Jimmy, Gloria, Ruth, and Billy, Lillian worked outside of her home. It was a bit unusual for a woman to work outside of her home at that time, but Lillian Carter was never usual. She was not the homemaker type, and she was lucky to have a cook and a nannie to care for her children so she did what she loved to do.

Sometimes, she worked as a nurse at the hospital, and, at other times, as a private duty nurse. Probably the most important work that she did as a nurse was to care for her black neighbors who had no one else from whom to seek help when they had a medical problem. Lillian went the homes of those black neighbors any time, day or night, when her help was needed.  If the medical problem was so great that she could not handle it, she figured out a way to get the help of a doctor for the patient.  Her willingness to help anyone in need without color being a consideration set Lillian Carter apart from many of her neighbors.

In the Carter’s community called Archery, about three miles from Plains, black people outnumbered the whites, but that was never a problem for “Miss” Lillian or her children.  Jimmy’s best friend was a black boy named, A.D. Davis.  Jimmy and A.D. spent many happy hours together roaming the Carter farm, hunting and fishing.  When “Miss” Lillian left to go to work, she would leave a note on the table for Jimmy and Gloria. Those two finally teased their mother by saying that she was away so much that they thought the big table in the front room was their mother.

The Carter children grew up and developed different personalities.

Billy, the youngest, described the family into which Roselynn Smith came when she married Jimmy Carter just after he graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.  The following is Billy’s description of his family as recorded in Bonnie Angelo’s book: “Ruth was an evangelist and a faith healer, and Gloria was a motorcycle nut who rode on the wild side with her husband, a farmer with shoulder-length gray hair and grizzled beard.”  Then Angelo described Billy: “Billy was a renowned beer-swigging, easy-cussin, joke-telling, outrageous proprietor of the best-known filling station in Plains, or maybe anywhere. Billy Carter was the quintessential southern good ol’ boy.”

Then there was Jimmy Carter, the oldest Carter child, who was-a- high achieving graduate of the Naval Academy and an officer on the U.S. Navy first atomic powered submarine.   

The mother who marched to her own drum beat certainly raised children who also marched to different drum beats.  “Miss” Lillian loved each of her children, and she did not seem to be bothered by their differences. ßhe did once say, no doubt just to get attention: “When I look at all my children, I say to myself, Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin.”  That was just another of Lillian’s quips found in Bonnie Angelo’s book.

Tragedy hit the family in 1953 when Lillian and Earl Carter had been married 30 years.  Mr. Earl had pancreatic cancer and died when he was 58.   The Carters had a happy marriage in which they enjoyed doing things together, even dancing in the living room to the music of their battery-powered radio.  Then, Earl was gone, and, even though Jimmy gave up his career in the Navy to come home and run the Carter Peanut Warehouse, Lillian felt alone and at loose ends. She said, “I wasn’t depressed, I was angry with everybody who had a husband.” That was not like the sassy “Miss” Lillian who could always make people laugh.

Lillian realized that she would have to pick herself up; no one could do that for her. She became a housemother at the Kappa Alpha fraternity house at Auburn University in Alabama.  She moved to Alabama and spend the next eight years acting as a surrogate mother for 105 rambunctious boys.  She loved that job and it took her out of the ”poor little me” time.

While listening to the late show after she had returned home from Alabama, “Miss” Lillian saw an ad asking people to join the Peace Corp. The ad said that age did not matter.  “Miss” Lillian soon found herself in an area of India surrounded by abject poverty.  Being surrounded with so much poverty and not being able to do anything about it was depressing. She was assigned to a program she did not feel was helping, which caused her more anguish. She was later assigned to help a doctor, which was better.  She said that she was fine as long as she was working with the Indian people, but, at night, she was homesick.  “Miss” Lillian was determined to fulfill her two-year commitment even though many volunteers did not do that.  She stayed two years but was delighted to get back to Plains.

“Miss” Lillian helped her son, Jimmy, in each of his political campaigns.  She was a favorite of reporters because she always had a quip that would catch people’s attention.  Sometimes she would say outrageous things, which made good copy.  The following is an example of one of her comments, “Jimmy says he’ll never tell a lie.  Will, I lie all the time. I have to—to balance the family ticket.”

During the campaign, Jimmy’ mother would spend every day meeting visitors at the old train station in Plains that had been converted into the Carter Campaign Headquarters. All the campaigning worked.

Some of the mothers of presidents loved being or living in the White House.  Not so with “Miss” Lillian.  She said, “Living in the White House is boring—I never did like it.”  This from the woman who always marched to a different drum beat.

Lillian Carter died on Oct. 30, 1983 at age 85.  In his book, “Always a Reckoning,” Jimmy Carter wrote: “To my mother, Lillian, who never would let racial segregation, loss of loved ones, ravages of age, or any other principalities or powers stop her sharing what she had  with the least of those she knew … I don’t think anyone ever met my mother and then forgot her.”