I had the privilege of working with Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter several times during my 33 years with Habitat for Humanity. As the assistant director of Habitat’s annual Jimmy Carter Work Projects for two years, I saw many examples of how they both “walked their talk”. President Carter was often among the first people to arrive at the construction site, before the media or other volunteers, to make sure that the houses being built under his name were making good progress. He worked harder than most and expected everyone around him to keep up. There were times when we needed to “insist” that he leave the worksite because there was a fund-raising event waiting on him.
In my visits to his Plains or Atlanta offices, President Carter always conveyed a sense of purpose. He knew that he had opportunities to make a difference in the world, and he was not going to waste them. He took these opportunities seriously. I recall at Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project in Miami when, after two days of working in the Florida’s June heat and humidity, he chided the volunteers for falling behind schedule. . . and then picked up his hammer and worked a 10-hour day to get the project back on schedule.
There was also a time when the Carter Project director and I recommended moving the next year’s annual build site because the local chapter that had been selected was not prepared. President Carter made it clear that he was going to be there building houses so we had better get things ready for him. He remarked that he often needed to make risky commitments without knowing how the goal could be reached.
His legacy includes The Carter Center, which has as its slogan “Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.” Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, and with programs running in over fifty countries, it is not intended to be a memorial to his life but, rather, a launching pad for advancements in health, agriculture, and governance that will continue his work around the world.
President Carter was a writer; in addition to memoirs and policy-focused works, he wrote poetry and fiction. If you get a chance, read his reflections on growing older (The Virtues of Aging) or on his youth in rural Georgia (An Hour Before Daylight).
President Carter was a complex person, a man of deep faith, hard working with a sense of calling to find justice. Yet he could be impatient with people who did not match his level of effort. I remember him as loyal to his friends and a Naval Academy grad with an eye for detail that could take his focus off of the big picture issues (like running an entire country).
However, regardless of how one evaluates his presidency or political acumen, it is clear that President Carter lived a value-directed life – he based his actions on the ideals and faith that he held so dearly. This is a characteristic that we would all do well to emulate.
Former Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Tulare/Kings Counties