Seeing former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Betty Ford's funeral in the news this week reminded me that I've been near the woman myself. Here's the story.
Where we lived in the late 90s was a morning's drive from Plains, Georgia, the setting for a small, unassuming rural church with avocado green carpeting, where Jimmy Carter taught Sunday School.
I summoned a friend to accompany me there one Sunday morning with the sole task of this: securing an autograph on a photo of Carter riding through my Pennsylvania hometown. My father, who collects presidential memorabilia, took the photo and had proudly displayed it in the decades since. He was the person who had alerted me to my proximity to Jimmy's church; he was sure the genial former president would sit down with me and swap stories.
The church was not hard to find; the tour buses occupied more space than the building itself. Janet and I were ushered into what turned out to be an overflow room. He'd walk through here on his way to the sanctuary, but that, we gathered, was the best we could hope for. We'd have to take in the lesson on Blind Bartimaeus via the large screen television, whose volume was just loud enough to hear, if you leaned. I thought I made out something about no autographs after the lesson, but figured it was a way of telling people not to make a fuss during the church service. It was difficult, after all, to remember that this was a church and not a tourist site.
After the walkthrough and the lesson, we were surprised to hear that a busload had left, and room was now available in the church pews for the morning service, which Jimmy attends but does not lead. Janet and I quickly nudged into the line of elderly southern folk, eventually finding our way into a front pew next to a young woman sitting alone.
Christy was one of the few longtime church members, as would be demonstrated shortly when anyone who was not a first-time visitor was asked to rise. Only a handful, including the president and his men, would stand...right next to me. For after Janet and I met Christy, we were joined in the pew by the Carters and their Secret Service. This was their pew, it turned out; we hadn't seen the Reserved sign posted at the other end. Rosalynn slid in next to Christy, then Jimmy, then one of the Secret Service at the end. The other agent bookended the row, sitting next to Janet. When we'd reach for our large purses on the floor, he'd move with us.
Church went on, and we tried to play cool the fact that we singing hymns mere feet from a former president. When the service concluded, we were led outside and into a line, where we were told that no autographs would be given; pictures with the president only. Disappointed, I decided if I couldn't have an autograph, I'd settle for a picture of the picture--with Jimmy.
I fished the frame out of my bag and left it to the side of the line as we waited. "Ma'am," a Secret Service agent said, "Please pick that up." I did.
On our turn, we handed our cameras to a church member. I showed the Carters the picture and said, "Beaver Falls, 1980!" We flanked the couple and smiled. The camera was returned and we were immediately ushered away, at which point I heard a wife nag her husband.
"Jimmy," Rosaylnn said. "You can sign that one, can't you?"
I didn't dare look back. But moments later, I heard the Secret Service calling me again: "Ma'am?"
I turned. He asked if I was in a hurry. Not at all. He told me to play nonchalant near the rear fender of the president's limo, pen in hand. "We'll get you that autograph."
I dug in the large bag once again. Jimmy finished smiling for the rest of the line and walked with his entourage to the limo, where I stood, nervous. I handed him the pen and picture and said, "To Dave." He never looked at me or said anything. He leaned the frame on the back of the vehicle, signed it and handed everything back to me. The Secret Service opened a door and whisked him inside.
The limo windows were dark, but I like to think that had I been able to see inside, I would have caught a wink, one woman to another.