Rosalynn Carter is being remembered as a trailblazer. The wife of former President Jimmy Carter and longtime mental health advocate and humanitarian died on Sunday at age 96.
“Before there was Nancy Reagan, or Hillary Clinton, or Michelle Obama, there was Rosalynn Carter,” said University of Minnesota public affairs professor Larry Jacobs. “She was a trailblazer in recognizing and championing the important public role of women in the country's public affairs in the White House.”
That role often brought Rosalynn Carter to Minnesota, first during her husband’s 1976 presidential campaign and then during her time as first lady from 1977 to 1981. Minnesota's Walter Mondale served as vice president during the Carter administration.
The Carters maintained close ties over the years with the Mondales, returning for the funeral of former second lady Joan Mondale in 2014 and the celebration of Walter Mondale's 90th birthday in 2018.
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But Rosalynn Carter’s impact was felt well beyond her relationship with the Mondales.
Sue Abderholden, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said Rosalynn Carter was a passionate champion of mental health.
“She was an incredible advocate for building a mental health system,” Abderholden said. “She had a huge impact on President Carter's efforts to pass the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980, which really would've put more funding in our community health centers and actually focus on prevention as well.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is also among those looking back at the life and legacy of the former first lady.
Klobuchar remembered the kindness the Carters showed her during her own presidential campaign in 2020, preparing pimento cheese sandwiches — a Southern favorite.
“She was just someone that was just this strong presence and incredible advocate for mental health,” Klobuchar said. “Someone that was just always this source strength to President Carter. This is a special, special loss for Minnesota.”
That’s especially true for Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity president and CEO Chris Coleman.
The Carters were two of Habitat for Humanity’s most famous volunteers over the 35 years they helped to build affordable housing with the organization.
“Our hearts are with the family of Rosalynn Carter, who worked alongside her husband to open doors for thousands of Habitat homeowners and advance racial equity in housing,” Coleman said. “Among her many legacies, Mrs. Carter leaves behind a legacy of compassion and advocacy for others.”
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter joined Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity for the 2010 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. The Carters worked alongside hundreds of volunteers to build, renovate and repair 20 homes in north Minneapolis and the east side of St. Paul. Then-St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and former Vice President Walter Mondale participated in the build.
Twin Cities Habitat will again host Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project next fall. Starting Sept. 29, thousands of volunteers from around the world will celebrate the Carters’ legacy by building dozens of homes along one city block at The Heights on St. Paul’s east side. In the Carters’ stead, Habitat Humanitarians Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood have stepped up to host the event.
The former president, who is 99, has been in hospice care since February. The Carter Center announced Rosalynn Carter was in hospice care on Friday. Her family said earlier this year that she was diagnosed with dementia.