Lillian Gordy Carter

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Lillian Gordy Carter
Lillian Carter.gif
Lillian Carter, January 17, 1979
Born Bessie Lillian Gordy
(1898-08-15)August 15, 1898
Richland, Georgia, U.S.
Died October 30, 1983(1983-10-30) (aged 85)
Americus, Georgia, U.S.
Occupation Nurse
Political party
Democratic
Spouse(s) James Earl Carter, Sr. (m. Sept. 1923)
Children Jimmy, Gloria, Ruth and Billy
Parents James Jackson Gordy and Mary Ida Nicholson

Bessie Lillian Gordy Carter (August 15, 1898 – October 30, 1983) was the mother of former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter. She is also known for contribution to nursing in her home state of Georgia and as a Peace Corps volunteer in India as well as writing two books during the Carter presidency.

Nurse and mother[edit]

Carter was born Bessie Lillian Gordy to James Jackson Gordy (1863–1948) and Mary Ida Nicholson (1871–1951) in Richland, Georgia in 1898. She is a biological half first-cousin of Berry Gordy, Sr., the father of Berry Gordy, Jr. who founded Motown records. She volunteered to serve as a nurse with the U.S. Army in 1917 but the program was cancelled. Instead, she worked for the US Post Office at Richland before moving to Plains in 1920 where she was accepted as a trainee at the Wise Sanitarium before completing her nursing degree at the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Atlanta, Georgia in 1923. Lillian's family initially disapproved of her choice of a career in nursing, but she continued her training and became very successful, earning the respect of both the black and white communities. "Miss Lillian," as she was often known, allowed black people to enter her home through the front door, rather than through the back door as was the social norm, and would often have them in her living room for casual conversation just as she would a white neighbor. These conversations would even continue after her husband Earl was to arrive home expecting the guests to depart.

Lillian Carter said that the strongest influence on her liberal views was her father. James Jackson Gordy, "Jim Jack" operated a Post Office in Lillian's hometown of Richland and was always cordial and often dined with the black workers. This was very unusual in the early 20th century but Lillian decided that she would follow her father's example.

She met businessman James Earl Carter and married him immediately after her graduation. The couple had four children with U.S. President Jimmy Carter being the eldest child born in 1924. Her other three children were also somewhat famous, Gloria (1926–1990), Ruth (1929–1983) and Billy (1937–1988). While she theoretically retired from nursing in 1925, in reality she worked as what was then called a nurse practitioner both for the hundreds of employees back in her husband's businesses and for the members of Plains community. While a religious woman, Carter was not a regular attender of church services. After some sisters at the local church organized a mission trip to Africa, Carter became upset saying that there was plenty to be done in the US before traveling to another country. She coordinated her own Bible study at home on Sunday mornings while the rest of the family attended church.

After the death of her husband from pancreatic cancer, Lillian Carter left for Auburn University where she worked for seven and a half years as a dormitory housemother. A year after completing her service at Auburn, Carter managed a nursing home in Blakely.

Lillian later became a social activist, working for desegregation and providing medical care to African-Americans in Plains, Georgia.

Peace Corps volunteer[edit]

In 1966, at the age of 68, Carter applied for the Peace Corps. After completing a psychiatric evaluation, she received three months of training and was sent to India where she worked at the Godrej Colony 30 miles (48 km) from Mumbai. Lillian worked in the Godrej Colony for 21 months, during which she aided patients afflicted by leprosy. Emory University established the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing in honor of the work she did in India. The Atlanta Regional Office of the Peace Corps has named an award in her honor for volunteers over 50 who make the biggest contribution.[1]

Presidential mother[edit]

With Jimmy Carter, February 17, 1977

When Jimmy Carter decided to run for President, his mother was one of the first people he told. He was initially regarded as a dark horse candidate for the Democratic Party nomination.

Lillian Carter was well known as "Miss Lillian" and she published two books during his Presidency, Miss Lillian and Friends and Away from Home: Letters to my Family, both published in 1977. The latter book was a collection of letters to her family sent when she was in India for the Peace Corps.

"Miz Lillian" was a favorite of the press for her Southern charm and down-to-earth manner. For reporters and interrogators alike, she always had a warm country sass response for every question. She once remarked "When I look at all my children sometimes I say to myself, Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin."

When Jimmy told his mother he was going to run for president, she said "President of what?".

In 1977, Lillian Carter appeared in a cameo, as herself, in the made-for-TV movie, "Lucy Calls the President", starring Lucille Ball.

When son Billy's beer business had its ribbon cutting ceremony, a friend questioned Carter on whether or not she would attend. She remarked: "I attended Jimmy's inauguration didn't I?"

Together with vice-president Walter Mondale, Lilian Carter was head of US delegation to funeral of Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito.

On the day of Jimmy's inauguration, Carter was asked if she was proud of her son and she asked blandly, Which one?

Final years and death[edit]

Shortly after her eldest son left office in January 1981, Carter was diagnosed with breast cancer. While her cancer was in remission in April 1983, her younger daughter, Ruth Stapleton was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died on September 26, 1983, at 54. Carter herself succumbed to breast, bone and pancreatic cancers a month later on October 30, 1983, at age 85 in Americus, Georgia. Her three surviving children were by her side at her death. Carter was buried in a simple six-minute ceremony at Lebanon Church Cemetery, on November 1, 1983, next to her husband, who died 30 years before her.

Three of her children, Billy Carter, Ruth Carter Stapleton and Gloria Spann, also died from pancreatic cancer; only the former president has not inherited the disease as of 2014, but in 2010, he had a severe stomach ache which was mistaken as that disease. He has become a fund-raiser and booster for research into a cure for the disease.

In 2001, a major nursing center was dedicated in her honor in Plains by Jimmy Carter in recognition of first years of service to the community as a nurse.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lillian Carter with Gloria Carter Spann, Away From Home: Letters to My Family Simon & Schuster New York 1977 ISBN 0-671-22683-5
  • Lillian Carter as told to Beth Tartan and Rudy Hayes Miss Lillian and Friends: the Plains, Georgia Family Philosophy and Recipe Book A&W Publishers 1977 ISBN 0-89104-074-9
  • Jimmy Carter, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood Simon & Schuster, London ISBN 0-7432-1199-5
  • Jimmy Carter, A Remarkable Mother Simon & Schuster, New York 2008 ISBN 1-4165-6245-1
  • Jimmy Carter, Always a Reckoning, and Other Poems Times Books, New York 1995 ISBN 0-8129-2434-7 was dedicated in his mother's honor and contains a poem about her.

External links[edit]