The holiday season is upon us, and that turns many minds to thoughts of spending time with loved ones. Below is an excerpt from Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924-1974 by E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. tracing the early romance of the former President and First Lady.
In the hot, dusty summer of 1945, people in Plains talked about the heat, the crops, and the war, unaware of an event on Main Street that three decades later would catapult their town onto the world stage. Jimmy Carter, the twenty-year-old eldest child of a prominent local family, was visiting his hometown before returning for his final year at the Naval Academy. As he drove down Main Street in a Ford car with a rumble seat, accompanied by his sister Ruth and her boyfriend, he glanced toward the Methodist church. There he spied a pretty young woman loitering on the steps. Petite Rosalynn Smith, with her large, warm, intelligent eyes, exuded a seductive shyness that captivated the Academy man. Graduated as valedictorian of her class at Plains High School, she had completed one year at a nearby junior college. Jimmy stopped the car, not knowing that Ruth and Rosalynn had conspired to set up the meeting. He invited Rosalynn to attend the movie at the Rylander Theater in nearby Americus that night. She accepted.
Rosalynn was seventeen and Jimmy twenty that night in 1945 when they had their first date. His white Navy uniform dazzled her, and he thought her ravishing in her blue dress that buttoned all the way down the front. Immediately after their first date, Jimmy told his mother that he had met the woman he intended to marry. Lillian disapproved. “Jimmy, she’s just a little girl! She’s Ruth’s friend,” she argued. Lillian thought that Jimmy was much more sophisticated than “naïve” Rosalynn Smith of Plains, Georgia.
Rosalynn’s father lacked the powerful personality and wealth of Earl Carter, and neither her mother nor any woman in Plains could equal Miss Lillian. Yet, connected by blood to the Wises, Murrays, Bells, and Smiths, her pedigree, ever so important in a small southern town, was superior to that of the Gordys or Carters. Because her father died when she was young and her mother remained imprisoned in shyness, Rosalynn had no influential, potent adults to push her into the world. What she had was a robust spirit, a vigorous will, an inquisitive intellect, an energetic mind, an unspoken ambition, a quiet faith, and a tough ability to succeed at whatever she undertook.
It would take Jimmy a decade of marriage to realize the complements to his lifestyle that Rosalynn brought to their union. On their first date, he saw a very pretty, smart, seductively shy girl who smiled at him. Rosalynn did not fall so quickly for him, but she later confessed that she had fallen in love with a picture of him in his uniform. She realized that the man in that uniform, who now said he loved her, had begun to see that world about which she only read and dreamed. The young lovers exchanged a flurry of letters, a correspondence that did not mention the major events of the day, but consisted of, according to Carter, “intimate love letters.”
World War II ended shortly after their courtship began. Rosalynn did not want Jimmy to go to war, but she remained reticent. He teased her about falling in love with his uniform, and he pretended to date other women. On at least one occasion, Jimmy did go out with another woman, and he suggested that Rosalynn see other men. When she reciprocated with letters about nonexistent boyfriends, he bristled, but they soon put aside their jealousies and committed to each other.
When Jimmy returned home on his Christmas leave in 1945, he and Rosalynn sang Christmas carols before open fires and attended church and parties together. Rosalynn beamed beside Jimmy in his dress blue uniform. He teased her mercilessly, a Carter family trait indicating affection, but not always graciously received. On Christmas day, Jimmy invited her into the Carter family; he gave her a silver compact engraved with the “ILYTG” family signature, “I Love You the Goodest,” and he proposed. She rejected him but left the matter open for consideration. Only eighteen and in her second year of college, she had promised her father on his deathbed that she would attend college. She had already completed her application to Georgia State College for Women. She did not know clearly enough whether she loved Jimmy, or only his uniform and the ticket he offered to the world.
E. Stanly Godbold, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of History at Mississippi State University. He served as off-camera consultant and on-camera commentator for the American Experience documentary on the life of Jimmy Carter. He is the author of Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924-1974.