In the wake of a one-term presidency and widespread public disapproval, Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter took the task of establishing a legacy in stride, creating a presidential library and nongovernmental organization in partnership with Emory University that to this day promises a commitment to advancing human rights globally.
Earlier this month, Carter announced that he has cancer, and the announcement brought a whirlwind of media and nostalgia to Emory and worldwide. While Carter’s presence at Emory has waned over the last three decades due to various factors such as age and health, he has continued to visit the Emory community in some form or another, whether through small seminars with students, programs with faculty or public lectures.
This September marks the 34th anniversary of the Carter Town Hall, a forum open to the Emory community that is designed for first-year students to ask Carter questions.
The Early Days
The Carter Center was founded in 1982 after Carter considered a number of other universities in his home state of Georgia with which to form a partnership and finally decided on Emory, according to Assistant to President Carter and Director of Research at the Carter Center Dr. Steven H. Hochman.
Carter developed a relationship with then-University President James T. Laney and launched the Center in September shortly after being named Distinguished Professor in April of 1982.
In its earliest days, the Center was housed on the top floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, where Carter divided his time between his office in the library and in Downtown Atlanta, conducting his activities for the Center and as a University Distinguished Professor.
According to Hochman, Carter taught at Emory for two days a month for more than 10 years before cutting back on teaching due to the Atlanta Project, also a partnership with Emory, that sought to improve the lives of the Atlanta community.
The Carter Center
Carter’s vision for the Center revolved around his desire to extend his involvement in world affairs after leaving the presidential office.
The Center conducts election observations, supports the growth of democratic institutions, fights to eradicate disease and mediates conflict.
From the start, Hochman said, Carter wanted to ensure that the Center would remain a nonpartisan institution. Some of its first major conferences were chaired by Republican politicians and many conservative voices have visited the Center throughout the years.
The efforts of the Carter Center have elicited accolade from its beneficiaries as well as from international institutions.
Former Assistant Director of the Press Office for the Carter Center Deborah Hakes, who developed a close relationship with Carter and his wife Rosalynn, said that travelling with the Carters was rewarding because she got to witness “the gratitude of people who were empowered by the Carter Center’s work.”
In 2002, Carter received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Center, and in 2006 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave the Center the Gates Award for Global Health. The Center has also received support from presidential administrations of the last three decades, Hochman said.
In conjunction with its global human rights agenda, the Center has also tried to maintain educational goals.
“The Carter Center has broad goals as an institution but tries to align itself with Emory as well,” Hochman said.
The relationship between the University and the Center extends beyond just the student level. Half of the Center’s Board of Trustees are appointed by the University president, and Carter Center employees are also considered Emory employees.
“[Carter] is the one faculty member who is shared by the entire University,” Hochman said.
In early August of this year, Carter revealed to the public that he has cancer in his liver after a small mass had to be removed.
At a press conference at the Carter Center on Aug. 20 Carter gave a speech that reflected on his long career as well as explained what will happen after he and Rosalynn cut back on their obligations at the Center and Emory.
“The Carter Center is well prepared to continue without any handicap if Rosalynn and I do back away from a lot of the activities that we’ve been doing,” Carter said.
According to Juan Sarmiento, director of Hepatopancreatic Biliary Surgery at Emory University Hospital and part of Carter’s treatment team at the Winship Cancer Institute, Carter stayed in the hospital for two days and is now being treated at home.
“He’s a very humble guy, very down to earth with a tremendously positive attitude,” Sarmiento said.
Indeed, Carter’s reaction to his diagnosis during the press conference indicated acceptance.
“You know, I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve got thousands of friends, and I’ve had an exciting and adventurous and gratifying existence, so I was surprisingly at ease — much more so than my wife was,” Carter said.
While Carter also indicated that he expects more cancers to develop, Dr. Walter Curran, executive director of the Winship Cancer Institute and also on Carter’s treatment team, said that Emory is fortunate to have a cancer facility that attempts to align cancer care with the best research.
Despite his deteriorating health, Carter has maintained his duties to the Center and Emory. He will conduct the 34th annual Carter Town Hall this September and visit Nepal in November.
Hakes recollected fond memories from his Carter’s last trip to Nepal in 2013, during which she accompanied the Carters and served as their photographer.
“When you’re traveling with the Carters, everyone waiting in line would stop and clap,” Hakes remembered.
The Center will also continue its efforts and partnership with Emory long after the Carter’s have departed.
“I am confident that the Carter Center will continue to be successful,” Hochman said.
He added that many of the Center’s efforts have persisted for the last 15 or so years without Carter’s presence himself. Indeed, Carter stepped down as the president of the Board of Trustees 10 years ago when he turned 80.
Hochman, who has served as Carter’s assistant for decades, reacted to his diagnosis.
“Obviously this is very difficult for me personally to think of the possibility that President Carter will not be around,” he said. “There is no doubt there’s no way to replace President Carter.”