Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, champion of mental health, died at the age of 96 on Sunday at her home in Plains, Georgia, the Carter Center said in a statement.
Former President Jimmy Carter, 99, and Rosalynn Carter were married for 77 years.
Rosalynn Carter is survived by her children, Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy; 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.
"Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished," former President Jimmy Carter said in the statement released by the Carter Center. "She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me."
The former first lady acknowledged in an interview with VOA in 2014 that the secret to her long marriage to Jimmy Carter was "space" and "respect."
"We grew to respect each other," she told VOA. "I respected what he could do, and he would respect what I could do, and from then on it's been a really wonderful partnership."
Eleanor Rosalynn Smith Carter was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, and lived in the small peanut farming town during the Great Depression.
"I had a really wonderful childhood until I was 13 and my daddy died, and that was sad. We were poor but everybody else was ... we didn't even know we were poor because we had food in the garden and a cow in the backyard for milk, and Mother made all my clothes," Carter recalled in her interview with VOA.
She grew up familiar with the son of a local peanut farmer, James Earl Carter Jr. ... better known as Jimmy.
"When he was 16, for instance, a senior in high school ... I was 13 - his little sister's friend. I never ever dreamed I'd go with him," Rosalynn Carter explained.
But on a visit back to Plains in 1946 while attending the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Jimmy Carter proposed.
'When I asked Rosalynn to marry me the first time, she said, 'No,'" Jimmy Carter remembered during a 2019 Habitat for Humanity news conference in Nashville, Tennessee. "And that was in February, and it wasn't until May that she changed her mind and decided to get married,' which they did, in their hometown of Plains, on July 7, 1946.
Rosalynn Carter followed her husband during his naval career and gave birth to three sons - John "Jack" Carter, James Earl Carter III or "Chip," and Jeff. Their daughter Amy was born later in 1967.
When the family returned to Plains in 1953 to take over the Carter peanut farming business, Rosalynn Carter managed the operations even after her husband decided to enter politics in 1962. "He got up one morning and instead of putting on his khakis to go to work at the farming supply business, he put on his Sunday pants, and I said where are you going, and he said he was going to run for the state Senate," she told VOA.
After contesting the results of that election, Carter won, launching his political career that eventually carried them into Georgia's governor's mansion in 1970, and the White House in 1977. While campaigning to help get her husband elected, Rosalynn Carter heard a similar concern from voters.
"Every single day I campaigned I had somebody ask me what I would do for a mentally ill loved one," she recalled. As first lady of the United States, Carter used her platform to advocate for mental health, forming a presidential commission to address the issue among other actions that influenced broader public awareness. She traveled the world the rest of her life working to remove the stigma associated with those suffering from mental illness. She believed that 'everybody in our country can realize that it's just an illness like any other illness."
During their time in the White House, President Carter encouraged his wife's prominent role in his administration, and sought her counsel throughout his tenure, including during the Camp David Accords, which ended a state of war between Israel and Egypt.
Rosalynn Carter had fond reflections about the effort. "It was one of the most thrilling days of my life. ... I was standing with Mrs. [Aliza] Begin, and Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin got to her before Jimmy got to me, and he came up and said, 'Momma, we're going to go down in history for this.'"
The joy of the Camp David Peace Accords was tempered by the hostage crisis in Iran, which ultimately contributed to Carter's presidential election defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980.
The couple returned to Plains, Georgia, in 1981 to plan their post-presidential life, in which Jimmy Carter explained to her one night - "I have an idea about what we can do with the rest of our lives," she explained to VOA. "He said we can have a place kind of like Camp David, where we can maybe negotiate peace agreements. That was the germ of the idea for the Carter Center."
Founded in 1982, the Carter Center today is one of the leading global nonprofit organizations, working to "wage peace, fight disease, and build hope" for people around the world. Under Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter's leadership, the Carter Center has monitored more than 100 elections, treated millions of people suffering neglected tropical diseases, and is on the verge of total eradication of Guinea worm.
The Carter Center also gave Rosalynn Carter the means to continue her work in mental health advocacy globally. "That's what I wish for, people to go for help, get help, and lead good lives," she said.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are the longest married presidential couple in U.S. history.
As her husband entered hospice care toward the end of his life, the Carter family announced the former first lady was suffering from dementia. She spent her final years alongside Jimmy Carter in Plains, where they were born and grew up nearly a century before.
The Carter Center announced Friday that the former first lady had also entered hospice care at their home in Plains.
The schedule of memorial events and funeral ceremonies will be announced at a later date, the Carter Center statement said.