With no more presidential burial sites left to visit, my grave hunting efforts shifted primarily to vice presidents. The five that remained were very spread out, with the shortest distance between any two being over 400 miles. I already had a plan in the works to fly with my grandparents down to South Carolina, where I would be able to cross John C. Calhoun off my list, which would leave me with four. After some discussion with my father, we decided that our best next course of action would be to go to Alabama and Kentucky to get Vice Presidents King and Barkely, respectively.
As I was planning our itinerary and looking for other southern sites for us to visit, I saw that one of the cities in Alabama we were going to was less than two hours away from Plains, Georgia, the hometown of former President Jimmy Carter. I had previously read online that Carter sometimes teaches Sunday school at his church, and that visitors generally are welcome to take a picture with him and his wife, Rosalynn, after the services conclude. We knew that going to Georgia would also allow us to visit relatives we had not seen in several years. It would have been too good of an opportunity to pass on, so we looked up President Carter’s Sunday school schedule and set a departure date for our trip.
Before I knew it, several weeks had passed and I was waking up and getting ready to head to the Carters’ church. Sunday school was not set to begin until 10 a.m., but internet advice said to arrive rather early so as to get good seats. As we pulled up to Maranatha Baptist Church, I could see the long line of visitors already stretching out the front door. After our rental car was approved by the bomb-sniffing dogs, we parked and headed over to the line at the front of the building, where we were then searched by the Secret Service. Once inside, we were assigned a pew in the center section. As I sat down I took notice of the giant wooden cross behind the pulpit, which I read was one of several items in the church crafted by President Carter.
Around 9 a.m. a woman at the front of the room with a microphone started addressing the crowd of visitors. This turned out to be someone I had read about while conducting my research about the church. Known popularly as “Miss Jan”, Jan Williams* is a member of the church who has several roles, which includes instructing guests on the proper protocol for interacting with the Carters. “Miss Jan”, through no fault of her own, has a reputation that precedes her for being rather strict and no-nonsense about these procedures. She acknowledged this, but told us she hoped she would not be as intimidating as rumors suggest. I would like to set the record straight and say “Miss Jan” is a nice woman with a good sense of humor, but the hour-long instructional period can cause a bit of anxiety. Visitors are taught what to call President Carter, to answer his questions only if he directs his attention to your section of pews, what you are allowed to say to the former first couple, and how to pose with the two when the time came for pictures. We spent some time practicing the various procedures, and whenever there was a mistake, “Miss Jan” was quick to correct.
Tension was high as 10 o’clock drew near, but overall “Miss Jan” was pleased with us. With the regular church-goers having already filed in, we were all instructed to close our eyes and bow our heads in prayer. When we opened our eyes, there at the front of the church was President Carter. He asked “Miss Jan” a quick question or two regarding our group, then turned his attention to the rest of the gatherers, asking what states the guests were from. After he looked to the center section, I loudly said, “Rhode Island,” which he repeated in acknowledgement.
The former president soon began to tell us about some of the recent endeavors of the Carter Center, as well as some details of his personal life (every night, he and Mrs. Carter read the Bible in Spanish). He eventually delved into his lesson, which largely focused on encouraging others to read the Bible as well. I wish I could recall more about his teachings, but, as I assume was the case with many of the other visitors, I was concentrating more on staying quiet and not embarrassing myself by somehow incorrectly answering even the easiest of the former president’s questions. After approximately fifty minutes, President Carter finished and church adjourned for a short while. The main service conducted by the pastor commenced at 11 o’clock as President Carter joined his wife in one of the pews.
When the service concluded an hour later, many of the regular parishioners left to eat lunch, while presumably all of the guests remained to have their picture taken. The process goes as follows: when “Miss Jan” signals your row, you stand up and wait in line. Each group is allowed one picture, so if you go to the service as a group of twenty people, your picture with the Carters is taken as a group of twenty people. When it is finally your turn, you hand your camera to one of the parishioners, then walk up and pose with the Carters with your hands by your sides. After the singular photograph is taken, your camera is handed to another church regular, and once you have stepped away from the former first couple you are handed back your camera to review your picture and make sure it is up to standards (if it looks poor, a retake will typically be allowed).
After a few minutes of patiently waiting in our pew, we were ushered by “Miss Jan” to stand up. As we got in line, I readied the camera feature on my cellphone. When the people in front of us moved on, I passed my phone over to the church regular who was taking the photographs. The Carters both smiled at us as we strode over, with President Carter asking us how we were. My father answered that he was well, while I answered with an honest, “A bit tired,” which is always how you want to introduce yourself to the former leader of the Free World. Naturally I went over to the former president’s side, so my father stood over by the former first lady (the Carters hold hands during these photo ops and are sure not to be separated). Mrs. Carter put her arm around my father’s, and President Carter put his hand on my back.
In the blink of an eye our picture had been taken, and our approximately seven second-long interaction with the former first couple was over. When we stepped to the side I was handed back my phone, and we reviewed our picture. It was an unflattering photo, with my father and I both looking stiff and awkward, but we decided it would suffice and, after signing the church guestbook, headed outside. Before we left the Carters emerged from a side exit, and the former president waved to those of us still there, at which point he and his wife climbed in their vehicle and were driven to their residence one mile away.
There were several sites in Plains that I wanted to visit such as the president’s birthplace and his notorious late brother’s defunct gas station, so we planned on staying in town for a few hours. Before we did anything else, though, we had to eat lunch. Plains is a very small community with fewer than eight hundred residents and just one traffic light, so dining options there are limited. We chose one of the town’s two restaurants, and after a few minutes of standing in line two of the churchgoers struck up a conversation with us. It came up that my father and I had traveled down from Rhode Island, and as it turned out the couple was originally from neighboring Connecticut, but had moved to Georgia within the last few years. They invited us to sit at their table when we were finished ordering, and we graciously accepted.
Once we had our food we walked over to the pair’s table, where we were introduced to some other members of the community. One of the women we sat with had been a schoolmate of the former first lady, while another’s husband had served in the Secret Service and protected both Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter in their post-presidencies. We enjoyed their stories about life in Plains, and everyone seemed to be equally entertained by our accounts of meeting former President Clinton and visiting president graves. About an hour was spent going back and forth from one story to another. After lunch was over and we were all parting ways, the husband and wife that invited us to sit with them, Mr. and Mrs. Cleveland, also extended us an invitation to stay with them next time we are in town.
Plains was certainly one of the smallest communities my father and I have been to on our presidential trips, but it was also one of the friendliest. It is a small wonder why the Carters have chosen to live in Plains for nearly all of their lives.
* On a side note, “Miss Jan” taught the Carters’ daughter, Amy, in the fourth grade, and her mother dated the president at some point before he started a relationship with Rosalynn.