PLAINS, Ga. - With her frail husband as a silent witness, Rosalynn Carter was celebrated by her family and closest friends Wednesday at her funeral in the same tiny town where she and Jimmy Carter were born, forever their home base as they climbed to the White House and traveled the world for humanitarian causes.
The former first lady, who died Nov. 19 at the age of 96, had her intimate funeral at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where she and her husband spent decades welcoming guests and where a wooden cross Jimmy Carter fashioned in his woodshop is displayed. Earlier tributes were held in nearby Americus and in Atlanta.
The former president was in attendance in his wheelchair, with her one last time in his life.
Maranatha Pastor Tony Lowden opened the service with a tribute to "the life and legacy of the greatest first lady."
Rosalynn Carter wasn’t "just the first lady of the White House," he told the gathering. "She served every nation around the world."
The pastor, describing her competitive streak, spoke to the mourners in what he imagined to be the voice of Rosalynn Carter: "She would say to you today, ‘don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free. ... Jimmy tried to beat me here. I got here first. I won the prize. Tell him I beat him and I’m waiting on him.’"
"But," Lowden continued, "she would say ‘don’t stop. There’s too many homeless people in the world. There’s still too many people who don’t have equal rights.’ ... She would tell you don’t stop. Become that virtuous woman. And men, if you’re listening, make room for the virtuous woman."
FUNERAL SERVICE PROGRAM
She will be buried in a plot she will one day share with her husband of 77 years. The former president, now 99, left home hospice care to attend Tuesday’s memorial, where two other presidents and all the living first ladies joined the extended Carter family, as well as Wednesday’s more intimate hometown funeral.
Vernita Sampson, a school bus driver and Plains native, drove a group of area high school students, all wearing Future Farmer of America jackets, to downtown Plains to pay tribute to the former first lady and soak up the history of the day.
"They were people you could relate to, not this high standard where they were up here and, you know, we’re all down there," said Sampson, 58. "We never get used to death, no matter who we are or how long you have lived,"′ but she said she and the students came "to celebrate that she did live a long life, a very happy and productive life, that gives you joy."
At the service, the mourning came with affectionate stories of life with Rosalynn Carter and some laughs.
"It occurs to me that dad got used to mom disagreeing with him because she was really good at it," son Jack Carter said. "And she became a partner in the true sense of the word, where they had equal footing."
Jimmy Carter met his future wife only a few days after her mother delivered her.
For 77 years, she had been by the side of the love of her life, former President Jimmy Carter. The two would rise from the peanut farm to the Georgia Governor’s mansion, and on to the White House together.
"Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished," President Carter once recalled about her. "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."
"He never wants to be very far from her," Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander said.
After the ceremony, her body was driven one last time by the Carter Center, where her body lay in repose with hundreds of people paying their respects on Monday evening.
The motorcade then made the long trek back home, one last time.
Georgia State Patrol troopers stood guard over her casket as it sat in a place of honor at the Carters' church in Plains, Georgia. A photo shared by the Carter Center shows the somber scene at Maranatha Baptist Church.
The proceedings Wednesday underscored her simpler constants. The sanctuary in Plains seats fewer people than the balcony at Glenn Memorial in Atlanta. Maranatha, tucked away at the edge of Plains where the town gives way to cotton fields, has no powerful organ; instead the cross her husband made and offering plates he turned on his lathe. Some of the congregants wore casual attire.
Church members, who were included in the invitation-only ceremony, rarely talk of "President Carter" or "Mrs. Carter." They are supporting "Mr. Jimmy" as he grieves for "Ms. Rosalynn."
Lowden, the Carters’ longtime friend and personal minister, also officiated Tuesday, emphasizing that Rosalynn Carter’s work, from the Georgia statehouse when Jimmy Carter was governor to the 120-plus countries that she visited, was an extension of her faith.
After the funeral, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren walked alongside an SUV carrying Jimmy Carter as Rosalynn Carter was carried from Marantha for the last time through the town where she lived for more than 80 of her 96 years.
The motorcade passed holiday lights and decorations including a photo collage in front of the downtown tree featuring the "First Lady of Plains."
The route also included the old high school where she was valedictorian during World War II, Plains Baptist Church where she and the former president were once outliers arguing for racial integration, the commercial district where she became Jimmy’s indispensable partner in their peanut business, the old train depot where she helped run the winning 1976 presidential campaign, and Plains Methodist Church, where as an 18-year-old in 1946, she married young Navy Lt. Jimmy Carter.
The route ends in what locals call "the Carter compound," property that includes their one-story ranch house, the pond where she fished and security outposts for the Secret Service agents who protected her for 47 years.
She will be buried in view of the front porch of the home where the 39th American president still lives.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.