Locals and Tourists in Plains reflect on the life and legacy of former President Jimmy Carter
Published 11:50 am Wednesday, February 22, 2023
By Ken Gustafson
PLAINS, GA – There are many ways to describe what former President Jimmy Carter has meant to the nation and the world, but in his home town of Plains, GA, locals and tourists a like will talk about a man who was always giving of himself to others and a man who lived by one command from Jesus mentioned in the Bible: “Love One Another.”
This command to love one another was on the mind of Jan Williams when thinking about what the former President and Plains native has meant to the community and how he lived his life amongst the citizens who knew him best. Williams has been a family friend of the Carters for many years. For her, loving one another and spreading that love is what will define Jimmy Carter’s legacy in Plains and throughout Sumter County.
“I’ve known him since I was a young girl. My father knew him well. I married a wonderful man here in Plains who has known him all of his life,” Williams said. “My husband’s peanut business use to be the number one competitor of his (Carter’s) peanut business. We were always friends though. I taught Amy (Carter’s daughter) in the fourth grade and then went to Washington with him, then came back to the real world and he’s been my Sunday School teacher.”
According to Williams, President Carter started teaching Sunday School at his church, Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, about two to three months after he and Rosalynn joined in January of 1981. The former President also taught Sunday School at Plains Baptist Church as well, where he and Rosalynn were once members.
“He taught Sunday School in Washington, D.C. when he was the President. It was not announced, but he would walk in and teach the Sunday School lesson,” Williams said. “When he was here in Plains, he taught every Sunday that he was at home.”
Williams went on to say that the number one question that people will ask her and others who know President Carter is what is his legacy? “I said, ‘His legacy he has built. His legacy has been built ever since he got into politics, or even younger than that,” Williams said. “I think his legacy is that he is going to continue to show the world by what he has already done: How to love each other, how to be kind to each other, how to be at peace. He wants nothing but peace for this world. He told us many times at church: ‘If you will just love the person in front of you, the world will be a whole lot better because somebody else will love that one and somebody else will love this one’, so it’s all about being kind to people,” Williams continued.
According to another local Plains resident, President Carter lived out that message and gave selflessly of himself and of his time to all people regardless of whom they were. Phil Kurlan and his wife Ramona came to Plains from Hagerstown, MD 30 years ago. They own and operate the Plains Trading Post: the largest dealer of political artifacts and memorabilia in the country. “When we first moved here, it was just before the Peanut Festival. We were trying to get the store set up. We were in a rush and I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if President Carter really lives here’. I look up and Rosalynn and Jimmy come in to welcome us to the community and they never stop coming,” Kurlan said. “When I was sick and couldn’t get out of bed, he came and sat with me for an hour. He came in for years in here to just talk or talk about politics. We’re the largest political dealer in the United States. I have condolences for the family and I feel sad, but I want them to also celebrate his life. I mean, it’s a life very well done and to me, the best tribute we can do is become a better person and step it up a notch and be kind and take care of people,” Kurlan continued.
Ramona Kurland attended one of President Carter’s Sunday Schools years ago and was introduced to the former First Lady, Rosalynn Carter. “I remember Rosalynn poking me in the back with a Bible to give it to me. I was like ‘ok’. I grew up Catholic, so I was like, you know, we have, like, a missalette,” Ramona Kurlan said. “I had a lot of people comment that the way he explained the lesson, it’s like they finally got it, which is kind of what you really hope for when you’re trying to do a lesson and teach.”
Allen Grimsley is a life long resident of Americus and has met President Carter on several occasions. According to Grimsley, Carter always gave support to his local friends in Plains and throughout Sumter County. “I’ve shaken his hand several times,” Grimsley said. “People who would die in Sumter County that he knew, he would be at their funerals. He was always at the Plains Peanut Festival. He came to my school (Tri-County High School) when I was going to school way back in the day and spoke to the school when I was there at one time.” To Grimsley, perhaps the biggest thing that President Carter impressed upon him is that no matter where you come from, or no matter how humble your beginnings are, you can rise to do great things. “You can be from Plains, GA and still be President of the United States,” Grimsley said. “Where you are from doesn’t limit your ability to accomplish things. Coming from a small town and still get to the pinnacle. That should be an inspiration to the folks around here. If it can be done once, hopefully, it can be done again. Maybe not in politics, but in some other area.”
Back when Jimmy Carter was running for President in 1976, Delphine McGrady, a native of Smithville, was an 18-year-old college student who was just getting started in the political process.
“Jimmy Carter was the first person I voted for in 76,” McGrady said. “I was a student at Fort Valley State and, of course, my professor nick named me Jimmy Carter. That’s all he called me because I was in school and I had to leave school to vote. Once I came back, he announced to the class, ‘She went home to elect Jimmy Carter’. I don’t even know if the professor remembers my name, but that’s what he called me: Jimmy Carter,” McGrady continued.
Harvey and Donna Smith met as students at Georgia Southwestern State University many years ago. They married and moved to Atlanta, where they have been living for the past 40 years. However, they have property in Americus and are thinking about moving back to Sumter County. For Harvey Smith, the very fact that Carter was able to leave Plains and become Governor of the State of Georgia, let alone President of the United States, changed the whole destiny of the town of Plains. He wonders what Plains would be like had Carter not have even been elected Governor. “I mean, just to go through Plains and go to the high school (now the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site) and say what if he was not elected to even Governor,” Smith said. “What would Plains be? You’ve got the tourism and the depot. It’s historic not from a political contribution so much as the fact that somebody could be elected from a small town like this. It’s pretty outstanding. I think just to say he did put Americus and Plains on the map. He was good for Sumter County. Just being elected Governor and President of the United States, I’ve never been in this shop (Plains Trading Post). You think they would have paid the rent selling all these political buttons? If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think this would be open,” Smith continued.
As has been the case since Carter was President, the town of Plains has brought in and still brings in many tourists from around the country and around the world. Dennis and Marcia Gorsuch, who are both tremendous fans of Jimmy Carter, are from Johnson City, TN. They came down to visit Plains for the first time. “I’ve said for years that I wanted to be in Plains, GA when Jimmy was here alive,” Dennis Gorsuch said. “I didn’t want to come here after the fact. You put it off, put it off, put it off. We made it spontaneous this week and came down.”
For them, Carter’s graciousness and the way he lived his life has made a tremendous impact. “He included everybody,” Gorsuch said. “His broad scope of the world and what he did for it, he’s my generation’s Jesus of Nazareth in a lot of ways. He helped people throughout the world and then helped build shelters for them in many numerous ways, not just through Habitat for Humanity. He was all-inclusive. He included everyone,” Gorsuch continued.
Much can be said about Jimmy Carter the President and much has already been said, written and documented concerning his four years in the Oval Office. However, the people of Plains and Sumter County know him as Jimmy Carter the person. To them, that aspect of the former President has made a far more tremendous impact upon them, as they have seen first hand his humility, his graciousness and his love for all people. They have seen first hand his desire to obey Jesus’ command to “Love One Another.”