Happy 96th birthday, Mr. Jimmy!

If you’re so blinded by partisanship and years of propaganda that you can’t see a totally apolitical mention of former President Jimmy Carter without some sort of knee-jerk negative comment about his presidential term (even guised in an otherwise positive comment such as “I didn’t like him as president, but he is a decent man.”), you probably should move on. This ain’t about politics, and there ain’t nothing here for anyone to argue about.

This is about a man dedicated to making the world a better place. It’s also about a man who is pretty down-to-earth, literally as a farmer, which is something folks who grew up or have lived anywhere near Plains, Georgia, have known for a long time. It’s also about a man who has lived longer than any president in American history. Jimmy Carter turned 96 today, and is clearly the most influential and impactful ex-president in history. If you dispute that, I suspect you don’t believe in climate change, wearing masks or a round Earth, either, because that is an undeniable fact.

I wrote a letter to President Carter in the late 1970s and got a reply on White House letterhead by some administration person to the extent of “President Carter read and appreciates your letter …”, which even this 9-year-old brushed off as, “He ain’t really read no letter.” (I wasn’t so great at English just yet — my native language was Southern.)

As the years have gone by, though, and I’ve had the opportunity to meet him a few times and hear him speak and interact with others — mostly through my work with The Fuller Center for Housing — I’m not so sure he didn’t read my letter.

Since his presidency, he has worked tirelessly, especially in the arenas of worldwide health initiatives, affordable housing and election integrity. Nothing about that hard work should be surprising. In the great biography of my other favorite Jimmy (Buffett) — “A Good Life All the Way” — author and music critic Ryan White describes how Buffett was a much harder worker than his Margaritaville persona indicated, but Buffett was wowed when he met Jimmy Carter on the campaign trail in Oregon in 1976. Buffett recalled him as the hardest working person he’d ever met. Buffett would later be invited to the White House to hang out with President Carter.

But what may surprise some people who are not from these here parts is how friendly and unassuming Jimmy Carter is. I first met him while playing in a “celebrity” softball game in Plains in the mid-1990s. (Please refrain from hurting my fragile feelings with any comments about how Sumter County must’ve had quite the dearth of “celebrities” back then.) Mr. Jimmy came up to me and a couple of guys and joined our conversation about the Atlanta Braves.

“Hi, I’m Jimmy Carter,” said the man in blue jeans as he shook my hand.

I wanted to say something clever like “You’re who?” or “And what do you do?” but I just kind of muttered a hello and my name. After our chat, he went out and hit a “home run.” I use quotation marks because he actually just hit a little dribbler around the infield and refused to quit running, with a huge smile on his face the whole way. No one had the guts to tag him out. By the way, members of the Secret Service were umpires, and it was unlikely they would call him “out” anyway. They allegedly also had a rule that Mr. Jimmy did not strike out. Ever. No matter what.

I can’t imagine how many times Mr. Jimmy has smiled for a photo, especially with people around Sumter County and the vicinity. He’s been to countless Plains Peanut Festivals and congratulated road racers and wandered the crowd, posed for photos and signed books. (He’s quite the prolific writer.) Not to mention all the times folks around here have bumped into him and/or Ms. Rosalynn at grocery stores, restaurants and various events. I’ve never heard of anyone say anything about their encounters that wasn’t something along the lines of how nice and surprisingly normal they are.

Since I joined The Fuller Center for Housing, I’ve had a few encounters with the former president. I’m sure Mr. Jimmy remembers all of them fondly as they must have been more memorable than his encounters with the Dalai Llama, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, presidents, rock stars and such. I suspect he shares a lot of the photos from the gallery at the bottom of this post all the time on Facebook — “#TBT to the time I met the great Chris Johnson.” I’m thankful he’s posed for photos with me, my wife and with my dad and stepmom, who brought my nephew to a Fuller Center event so that he could shake hands and meet a president. I think my dad also rather enjoyed meeting someone he’s looked up to and admired for a long, long time.

Every time I’ve been around the man, he has a welcoming smile for every one. He treats the most common folks — and they don’t get much more common than I am — like he treats heads of state, much like his hard-working, always-serving friend Millard Fuller, which may be one reason they hit it off. I’ve also seen Mr. Jimmy behind the scenes get physically tired after a long day of dozens, hundreds or thousands of folks wanting to have an encounter. The man is 96. He’s beaten brain cancer, seen the decline of American civility and built houses through his 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s — he’s earned a little bit of down time … even if he will not willingly choose to take it easy.

Very few people are guaranteed 90 years on this Earth, or 96 … or 97. So, let’s take a moment to appreciate Mr. Jimmy, one of the most decent famous people there has ever been, while he’s still with us. If we could all follow his example and try to make the world a better place, even if each of us just made it a teensy-weensy bit better, there’s no telling what we could accomplish.

 

A few photos of me & family with Mr. Jimmy

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Meanwhile, I can’t wait to see this new documentary:

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