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Memories allow a visit to Plains

OPINION by Melinda Gassaway, guest column | February 22, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Like so many other Americans, I was deeply saddened to hear the news that former President Jimmy Carter has entered hospice care in his home community of Plains, Ga.

Having experienced several serious health issues in recent times, it is understandable that the 98-year-old former chief of state would find considerable comfort in spending his final days in the place where he grew up and where he is close to so many loved ones who have supported him over the decades.

Carter, his family, and the kind and generous citizens of Plains hold a special meaning for me as a former journalist on the staff of The Sentinel-Record. In 1976, when the country became interested in the presidential campaign of a soft-spoken Democrat who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, revived his family's peanut-farming business, and served as Georgia governor, I, too, became enthralled with the personal story of the man and his desire to seek our nation's highest public office.

How, I wondered, could we at the hometown newspaper bring that narrative to local readers so they, too, might have a more personal view of the character of this man?

Would it even be possible for me to find a way to travel to Plains and see firsthand why Carter had created such a political buzz? First, of course, I had to make a case for getting the assignment with my general manager, Wallace Ballentine. I politely offered up a list of reasons why our publication should get a closer look at this man of deep faith and humility, this Southern gentleman who was unlike many other political candidates of his day and time.

I assured my boss that if he would permit me and writer-photographer Marilyn Neel to go to Plains for the weekend of Carter's class reunion, we would return with great photos and copy that would be of interest to our subscribers. I could hardly contain my excitement when Mr. Ballentine finally agreed.

The next hurdle was convincing my parents that their only child would make the trip just fine in her yellow Volkswagen Beetle. I know they were shaken by the prospect of two young women driving all of those miles and being swept up in the media hubbub we were sure to find. But, they remained positive and encouraging.

Luckily for Marilyn and me, I had made a contact at the Carter Campaign Center (an old train depot) in Plains. Her name was Maxine Reese and I had called her several times about the possibility of getting press passes for the weekend in question. My persistence paid off and Maxine could not have been more accommodating and helpful.

Shortly after arriving in Plains, we walked up and down the main street, visited with some locals and other individuals also there because of their curiosity about Jimmy Carter. Marilyn captured wonderful pictures of young Amy Carter at her lemonade stand and of Rosalyn Carter greeting visitors from a bedecked golf cart. When she stopped to allow several youngsters to depart the vehicle, I managed an introduction and she welcomed us to the then-bustling town. To this day, Marilyn's picture of me with the soon-to-be first lady is a treasured keepsake.

We did not manage a personal interview with the candidate himself, but we documented his demeanor with others, his comments at the class reunion, and answering a plethora of questions, his ready smile. It wasn't an exclusive, but Lillian Carter, the candidate's feisty mother, granted Marilyn and me a visit at her home. She was forthright, funny, and obviously proud of her son and the way he conducted himself in the spotlight. A professional nurse and Peace Corps volunteer, "Miss Lillian" as she was known, graciously gave us the time we needed for a good sidebar article.

Without question, my short stay in Plains was an experience of a lifetime. I continue to admire the good works of the Carter family here in this country and around the world. I remain exceedingly thankful to my newspaper colleagues and friends who keep us informed each and every day.

And to President Carter, I respectfully say, " God bless and may peace be with you."

Print Headline: Memories allow a visit to Plains


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