This Is Carter Country


When the first settlers arrived in Sumter County, Ga. more than 200 years ago, a Scotch-Irish clan named Carter was among them. The Carters made their home in the hamlet of Plains, pop. now 683. “I have a reservoir of self-assurance that comes from my own people, ” Jimmy Carter has said. Correspondent Joyce Leviton interviewed some of those people. Their assessment is uncritical but nonetheless revealing of the man the Democrats are expected to nominate this week.

A Chip off the old block

As a boy, James Earl (“Chip”) Carter, 26, watched his father, Jimmy, struggle through 18-hour days during peanut season to turn a modest business into a large warehousing-retailing-farm operation. “Dad did everything himself,” says Chip. “He would weigh a truck, then drive it around and load a hundred-pound sack of fertilizer on it.”

Chip (above, on neighbor Randy Coleman’s handlebars) has two brothers, Jack, 29, and Jeff, 23, who have left Plains. “We were taught at a very early age that everybody was equal,” says Chip. “We had the only liberal parents in Plains, and I guess I suffered. I used to get in fights every day at school—I had to come home at lunch and change shirts.” His father and his grandmother were taking their lumps, too, for trying to integrate the Baptist Church. “But all this has changed,” Chip observes. “The only race talk here now is the political race.”

Of his father Chip says, “He’s as much a friend to me as any friend I have.” But when Chip has a beer around teetotaler Jimmy or doesn’t go to church? “Dad figures I’m over 18 and he doesn’t try to enforce rules on me.”

We sold boiled peanuts on the street

Hugh Carter, 55, a cousin, is running for his sixth term in the Georgia Senate, Jimmy’s old seat. “Jimmy and I grew up together,” he says. “We did all the things boys growing up in Plains did.” They went to church and “sold boiled peanuts on the streets to make spending money.” For reasons long forgotten, Hugh’s nickname was “Beedie” and Jimmy’s was “Hot.”

Hugh runs a worm farm a mile and a half from Plains and ships red wigglers all over the country. He calls his business “a lowdown, crawlin’ callin’.” He also owns a thriving antique shop on Plains’s Main Street. One recent Saturday he was busy setting up for a night auction. “That’s Jimmy’s chair over there,” said Hugh, pointing to a 1920s overstuffed number. “Of course, I may sell it before he gets here.”

A sister who discovered the open road

Gloria Carter Spann, 49, realized some years ago that “all our friends were having heart attacks or getting divorced.” She told her husband, Walter, a farmer, they needed a hobby “for just you and me.” The Spanns discovered motorcycles and have ridden together all over America.

Jimmy’s other sister, Ruth, 47, has attracted national attention as a faith healer in North Carolina. Gloria stayed in Plains and out of the public eye. But she admits, “When people ask directions, I never smile, ’cause when I do, they know I’m Jimmy’s sister.”

She hasn’t campaigned much but does sometimes take care of Amy when the Carters are gone. “I have Jimmy’s letters,” she says, “and I plan to write a book.” Like her mother, she thinks “too much has been made of the religion thing in Jimmy’s life,” but adds. “I guess it hasn’t hurt him. If Jimmy goes to Washington,” she says. “I’ll be right here. My life is perfect and I don’t want to change it.”

A black who has seen Plains change

The life of Henry Jackson, 59, attests to the change in small Deep South towns like Plains. When Carter was governor, Jackson ran successfully for the city council with biracial support. “I’ve been knowing Jimmy Carter since I was a child,” says Jackson. “He’s just like you see him—smiling. I’ve never seen him mad. The Carters are a fine set of people. You see them today and you see them tomorrow and they’re the same. Jimmy don’t change. Way back there, when there was a difference in the black and the white, that didn’t make any difference to them. I’m praying for Jimmy. When you’re connected with the Man Up There, you can’t lose.”

High marks from Miss Eleanor

Miss Eleanor Forest, 74, was Jimmy’s first-grade teacher. A widow, she retired to the same neat white house she has lived in since she herself was a first-grader. She is within sight of the school where she taught for 36 years.

“Jimmy was one of the sweetest little boys,” Miss Eleanor says, “but you can’t tell much at that age. He came to school one day and said, ‘Miss Eleanor, I am going to bring you my mother’s diamond ring—Daddy will get her another one.’ ” Miss Eleanor remembers Jimmy as “a good student, cooperative. I can’t say he was the smartest boy I’ve ever taught—I’ve taught a lot of smart boys—but he was among the top ten. I was a stern teacher,” she adds. “There wasn’t a room big enough to hold me and a child who wouldn’t mind.”

Miss Eleanor sums up, as if penning a note on a report card: “Jimmy is such a hard worker and he’s so determined. I think he’s going to work just as hard as President as he did in school.”

Jimmy ain’t gonna give you anything

“Jimmy is smart as the devil,” says P.J. Wise, 59, a hospital engineer and an old Carter neighbor whose son, Phil, is in the campaign organization. “Always about five years ahead of himself, always looking ahead to see what the needs of the people will be. He built the first peanut dryer. He and I worked for consolidation of schools and on the hospital board. We were deacons of the Baptist Church together. During the integration turmoils [in 1964-65] we worked to keep harmony among everybody. We got cussed out quite a bit. We had to work with the white and black employees at the hospital to keep peace. We got the thing rolling in spite of the threatening calls at night. When Jimmy was elected governor, I told the people in Sumter County there was no use in them running up to Atlanta asking for things. If Jimmy didn’t see the need, they wouldn’t get anything. Jimmy won’t sell himself to anybody. He ain’t gonna give you anything.”

The Godwins: a fish, a gym, a boat

Pete Godwin, 57, once drove the school bus that picked up Jimmy Carter. Now he runs the Plains Convalescent Home with his wife, Dot. She remembers the time little Jimmy was taken fishing with some pals and cried because he didn’t catch the biggest fish. Says Pete, “Jimmy was a mover.” Carter helped get a doctor in the town, a swimming pool, a gym. “We looked on the Carters as the leaders in the town,” says Pete. “If anybody had trouble, the Carters went without hesitation—anywhere.” The Godwins recall the peanut conveyor Jimmy designed, the pontoon boat he built, and how he tried to learn Spanish by playing records while he slept. “He has a lot of ideas,” says Pete, “and the energy to carry them out.”

Jimmy was among the skinny-dippers

Warehouse owner Frank Williams, 56, knows for a fact that Jimmy Carter puts on his pants one leg at a time. They used to skinny-dip together. “On Sundays,” recalls Frank, “we walked out to the edge of town to go swimming in the creek. When we heard a truck or a wagon coming, someone yelled, ‘Everybody under the bridge!’ ” As his wife, Virginia, 52, puts it, “Jimmy was just an ordinary boy. He had to milk cows before he came to school, just like everybody else.” The Williams warehouse competes with the Carters. “There’s always been enough business for both of us,” says Frank. “Several customers do business at both places. There’s an old saying around here: ‘It’s a poor rat that’s got only one hole to run to.’ ”

Her son Jimmy wore his cap to bed

Lillian Carter, a spry 77, remembers son Jimmy as a skinny child who started walking when he was one year and one day old. “We didn’t have much money,” she says, “but we had everything we needed. Jimmy’s book [Why Not the Best?] makes us sound so poor you want to get out a hat and take up a collection.” The religious fervor of the Carter family “has been overplayed” too, she says. “We made a Christian home, read the Bible and had prayers, but Jimmy was no different from other children.” He was a good boy. “He never gave us any trouble,” Lillian says, “but he did slip away the last day of high school and go to Americus with a bunch of boys. That kept him from being valedictorian.”

Lillian recalls, too, the day his sister Gloria hit Jimmy in the head with a wrench and he retaliated by shooting Gloria in the behind with an air rifle. His father, a strict disciplinarian, whipped him with a peach tree switch. Jimmy’s dad once cut his son’s hair with mule clippers before the boy visited Lillian’s parents in Columbus, Ga. “He gapped Jimmy up so bad, he wore his cap the whole time,” says Lillian. “My mother said she had never known a child to wear his cap to the table and to bed.”

When Jimmy was 16, Lillian says, he wanted to enter the Naval Academy. “But he was too short, too thin and had flat feet,” she says. “He exercised, he ate bananas, and he rolled a Coke bottle under his arch for hours.” Jimmy not only got into Annapolis, “he graduated with distinction.”

When his father, Earl, died in 1953, Jimmy quit the Navy and returned to Plains to run the family business. Nine years later he declared for the state senate. His mother says, “He didn’t have enough to fill his mind.”

Lillian Carter herself is a woman of considerable achievement—registered nurse, fraternity house mother, manager of a convalescent home. One day in 1966 Lillian asked Billy and Jimmy, “Do you love me?” Billy replied, warily, “What in the heck are you going to do now?” Go into the Peace Corps, she said. “Well, Mama,” Jimmy said, “you always did love an underdog.” She spent 21 months in India.

Miss Lillian, the matriarch of Plains, confidently looks forward to Washington. “I’ve loved politics all my life,” she says. “I’ve never run for office—but I have aided and abetted.”

Billy runs the Carter empire

Billy Carter told a TV interviewer, “One of my sisters is a Holy Roller preacher. One rides motorcycles and my brother is running for President. I’m the only sane one in the family.”

The amiable Billy, 39, manages the Carter agribusiness in Plains: a 3,100-acre farm, a cotton gin and a warehousing operation which stores and sells seed and fertilizer. The gross last year was nearly $2.5 million.

“I was almost like an only child,” Billy says of growing up. “Jimmy was 13 years older.” Billy went to Emory University, but “just couldn’t pass English.” Unlike his brother, he is not a regular churchgoer. “Jimmy’s more liberal than I am,” Billy admits, “but I think it bothers him when I tell people that.”

Billy, the father of four girls and one boy, sees no Kennedyesque younger-brother role for himself in a Carter White House. “I’m proud for Jimmy but I’m gonna be right here,” he says. “I’ve tried small towns and I’ve tried large towns and I just want to stay in Plains and raise my family.”

Amy is a barefoot girl with cheek

Amy Carter, 8, goes to an integrated school (above, with schoolmates Linda King, left, and Jackie Monts). Like her grandmother, she is strong-willed and frank. Being interviewed bores her. “Are you finished?” she keeps asking. Amy likes reading, her Siamese cat, Misty, swimming and her father. “I would like living in Washington, but I like living in Plains best.” The nicest thing she knows about the White House? Its swimming pool.

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