PLAINS, Ga. — In Plains, neighbors and friends of Jimmy Carter keep watch.
They speak of how they are with him, in spirit, around the clock, by his bedside, as he rests in hospice at home. Those closest to him believe he knows how much he means to them as if they’ve left nothing unsaid. But they want to say it to him over and over again.
“He's one of the greatest, living individuals that I’ve ever known," said Pastor Tony Lowden, Mr. Carter's pastor.
Pastor Lowden treasures photos of the two of them together--a friendship forged through their mutual faith.
Carter and Lowden are with each other frequently now, along with Rosalynn.
“They’re doing fantastic," Lowden said Tuesday. "They’re loving each other. They’re loving on each other. That’s the most important thing. We should celebrate the moment that they get an opportunity to spend some time together,”
Lowden said Carter, a leader on the global stage for nearly 50 years, is the heartbeat of Plains.
“He’s given all that he can give, and yes--are we going to miss him? Yes. Do we love him? Yes, and we do hurt," Lowden said. "But JC would say this—he would say, continue to give the best you can, to be a servant leader with a servant heart.”
Just around the corner from the Carter home, one of their closest friends, Nelle Ariail, showed11Alive framed photos on the walls of her home, and scrapbooks that she spread open on her kitchen table--memories of their friendship going back decades.
The Carters, she said, couldn’t do enough for her and her late husband, saying they were always "kind, very kind" to them. Nelle Ariail is a retired teacher; her husband, Dan Ariail, was the pastor of the Carters’ church.
“In losing him, I’ll be losing a friend," she said.
Ariail remembers vividly that when Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, he called her and asked her and her husband if they would go to Oslo along with him and Rosalyn for the ceremonies.
“Jimmy called here at the house and said, ‘we want y’all to go with us,’" she recalled, adding, "I was surprised, and he said, ‘well, it’s a special time for us, and we want you to be with us.’”
When they all arrived, she remembers Carter outside a reception with one of his young grandsons; they were running around the room playing tag.
And when her Yorkie was struck and killed by a car, Carter reached out to her--and more.
“We got flowers, we got food, and it was amazing the attention we got from losing a puppy," Ariail said. "But that’s how he is.”
The Carters invited Dan and Nelle to use their cabin in north Georgia whenever they wanted "to get away from it all,” she said.
When Dan was working toward his doctorate, she said Carter saw him typing on an old manual typewriter and told him that would not do. So Carter gave Dan a laptop computer and spent the day showing him how to use it.
During the 23 years Dan Ariail was pastor of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, crowds worldwide began filling the church to hear Carter’s Sunday School lessons. Dan and Nelle kept all of Carter’s lesson books with his signatures and notes over the years.
Carter's last Sunday School lesson was in November 2019.
Ariail said that once Carter called up asking if he could borrow Dan’s Harry Potter books.
“And I said to him, ‘are you reading Harry Potter?’” He said, ‘yes, we’re going to Disney World, and I don’t want my grandkids to know more about it than I do.’”
Ariail joined the Carter family on five of their Habitat for Humanity builds around the country.
“Hard work," she said. "President Carter was the first one working and the last one to quit, every day.”
She remembers when she had some friends coming from out of town to visit.
“And they stopped downtown to ask for directions. And President Carter happened to be standing nearby and heard them. And he said, ‘follow me.’ So he came riding by on his bicycle with our friends driving behind him, and when he got here, we were on the front porch," Ariail said. And Carter called out to her, "‘y’all got company coming,’ and he waved and rode away.”
She and Lowden are among the many in Plains who have countless memories of a dear friend.
“This is one of our own," said Lowden, "this is our Georgia son. Name another state that has two Nobel Prize winners out of their state (Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King, Jr.). Name another state that has shaped the world, that you have an individual like President Jimmy Carter, that has shaped the world. One of the greatest, living individuals that I’ve ever known.”
Carter’s been that person in Plains, Ariail said, who remembers everyone’s birthdays, anniversaries and the names of their children and grandchildren--just enjoying being with the people of Plains, Ariail said, as much as they always enjoy being with him.