Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter takes questions from the media during a news conference about his recent cancer diagnosis and treatment plans, at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, Aug. 20, 2015. (John Amis/Reuters)
Jimmy Carter, the 39th president of the United States, told reporters the other day that cancer has spread to his brain. Speaking in that slow, sometimes mesmerizing Georgia drawl, he said, "I'm perfectly at ease with whatever comes."
The 90-year old Mr. Carter may not have been a huge success in the White House but his and the Carter Center's efforts to eradicate disease and despair around the world in the years since he left office have been dramatic and hugely successful. "I'd like the last Guinea worm to die before I do," he said. When he and the center began their battle to eradicate the disease, there were 3.5 million cases in Africa and Asia. In 2014, there were 126.
Mr. Carter, a deceptively simple man, has managed, without much fanfare, to save millions of lives.
He and his wife, Rosalynn, still live in Plains, Georgia, the village (population 776 in 2010) where he was born. He still attends the local Baptist church every Sunday and manages to find time to teach Sunday school. He said he would keep teaching the kids their Bible lessons so as long as he was able.
I spent a day in Plains with Mr. Carter in 1975, when he was running what almost everyone said was a futile campaign to win the Democratic nomination for president. Rosalynn was visiting friends in Florida and their daughter Amy was nowhere in evidence. Our first stop was what was left of a hamlet outside Plains called Archery where he and his family had lived when he was a child. He said he dimly remembered one night in particular when dozens of black tenant farmers gathered in a house nearby to listen to a radio broadcast of the second heavyweight fight between Joe Louis, a black American, and Max Schmeling, a German much admired by Adolf Hitler, in Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938.
"They were very quiet at first," he said, But not for long. Mr. Louis knocked out Mr. Schmeling before the first round was over. "They went wild," Mr. Carter said. "You never heard such a celebration."
Mr. Carter and his wife have four children, Amy and three boys, Jack, Chip, and Jeff, Our next stop was the elementary school classroom where the wife of one of the three boys -- probably Chip's -- was the teacher. Everybody in the classroom spoke in what to me was almost an impenetrable southern accent. "I used to talk that way," Mr. Carter said, adding that he worked hard to moderate it to the drawl so familiar now to millions.
Our next stop was lunch at the home of Mr. Carter's formidable mother, Lillian Gordy Carter, known to everyone as "Miss Lillian." There wasn't much to eat in the house, a few aging slices of bread and some sliced cheese. Miss Lillian, though, was a delight. She was a nurse in Plains for a number of years and regularly tended to the needs of many of the town's African-Americans, often without being paid. From 1966 to 1968, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in India. Jimmy published a book about his mother in 2008, titled "A Remarkable Woman," and so she was.
Mr. Carter's younger brother, the rowdy Billy Carter, ran the family gas station. We stopped by to see him that afternoon. He told us a few jokes in his adopted role as the "good old boy" in the family (he actually had gone to college and was widely read) and showed us around. It was a few years later that his own beer brand, Billy Beer, appeared.
We drove by the family peanut warehouse, setting Mr. Carter off on a lengthy discourse about the nutritional benefits of peanut butter. "Peanut butter" he said, "could solve many of the world's hunger problems."
We somehow missed visiting Mr. Carter's first cousin, Hugh Carter Sr., who proudly boasted he operated the world's largest worm farm. He also ran an antique shop after his cousin became president, regularly flogging brass objects of art made weeks earlier in Pakistan. Another popular item, small bottles containing authentic dust from Plains, Georgia, went for one dollar.
We ended up back at Jimmy Carter's home, a comfortable, but unexciting, ranch house. He and Rosalynn still live there.
As I was driving away, I saw the future 39th president running down the driveway, signaling me to stop. Amy's cat, he told me, was perched on the roof of my rental car. We disengaged Amy's cat and I continued on my way.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.