Woster: Jimmy Carter, on a mission to be a good person

My newspaper arranged an interview with the former president during that week. We met at the housing project late on a sweltering, cloudless morning.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

A person needn’t have known Jimmy Carter personally to be saddened by news the former president is spending his last days at home in hospice care.

The 98-year-old peanut farmer and Navy officer from Georgia, elected to one term in 1976, made being former president a calling. He used the position to do good works, humbly and seemingly without thought of material reward. From carpentry work on housing projects across the country to mediation efforts in other nations, Carter showed those who would see that decency is its own reward.

In recent years, Carter has survived cancer, endured falls, scrapes and bruises and generally experienced the things that happen as humans grow old. None of that stopped him from attending church back home regularly. None of it got in the way of his mission, which as best as I can tell, has been to be a good person.

I have always admired Jimmy Carter. We spoke once, years after he left the White House. I covered one national political convention in my news career. It happened to be in New York City in the summer of 1976. The nation celebrated its bicentennial that year. Carter won the nomination from the Democratic Party delegates to be their candidate for president against incumbent Republican President Gerald Ford.

The convention was dull from a news point of view. Early in the primary season, several candidates had chased the nomination. By convention time, Carter had it wrapped up.


Still, it was exciting for a relatively young news reporter, sitting in the press seats at Madison Square Garden, listening to a candidate make an acceptance speech. I had watched televised nominating conventions since the middle 1950s. Only that once, in New York at Jimmy Carter’s convention, did I sit in the same room with the participants.

Political experts say he was a less than stellar president. Could be true. I never hung in circles where people spent a lot of time close to or watching a president. I had neither the experience nor the knowledge to render a judgment. He seemed like a caring, sincere man, but even in those days that wasn’t always enough. Imagine trying to get by in politics today on those qualities.

In the summer of 1994, the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, came to South Dakota. They spent a week in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, sleeping on cots in a small tent, working with other Habitat for Humanity volunteers to build 30 homes on land at the east edge of town.

My newspaper arranged an interview with the former president during that week. We met at the housing project late on a sweltering, cloudless morning. He stepped out the front door of one of the homes under construction, lifted his cap to wipe his brow, took off his work gloves, and shook my hand.

“I’m Jimmy Carter,’’ he said in that soft drawl that had become so familiar to folks when he campaigned. In 1976, he would say, “I’m Jimmy Carter. I’m running for president.’’

This time, he just said his name, took my arm and walked around the side of the house to find a place in the shade. We sat out of the sun and wind on a pile of building scraps and spent an hour together.

I asked questions about building homes, his involvement in other good works, his international travels, a little politics. He answered comfortably, and he added thoughts on faith, caring and sharing. When he learned that I grew up on a farm, he grinned and said, “I’m a farmer, too.’’ I had to laugh. Who didn’t know the story of his peanut farm? But he said it in such a genuine way it occurred to me that maybe he really didn’t expect people he met to remember anything about his story.

The interview ended and he headed off to join the line of volunteers at the lunch tent, a former president content to wait his turn for a meal before returning to work.


As I watched him walk away, I could only think, “What a decent man this is.’’

Opinion by Terry Woster
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