It’s been nearly 50 years since Mike Hightower first met Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, but his memories remain vivid.
“They were gracious, loyal. They were wonderful. And she was just extraordinary,” Hightower said Monday.
Rosalynn Carter, the former First Lady, died at home in Plains, Georgia on Sunday. She was 96 years old.
Hightower met the couple when he helped lead the Carter campaign to victory in Duval County and Florida in 1976.
“It was a very exciting time,” he said.
He said he saw the Carters’ partnership up close, a partnership that lasted 77 years.
“He relied on her instincts and her insight, and of course, her loyalty,” Hightower said.
After the election, Hightower joined the Carter Administration as the Florida director of the Farmers Home Administration, which he likens to rural HUD.
His career took off from there, leading to leadership positions in political campaigns and lobbying, and even changing his political party. But he’s kept mementos from his start with the Carters, including handwritten notes from the First Lady thanking him for his help in Jacksonville.
“It’s hard not to be emotional because of the impact that they had on my life. I wouldn’t be here if it had not been for them. I could still be a school teacher,” he said.
Hightower said he was sad when he learned of her death but will cherish the fond memories.
“And just knowing that relationship and the impact that she had on this country,” he said.
Rosalynn Carter used her platform to advocate for mental health care and for caregivers. Hightower said she visited several senior citizen homes in Jacksonville.
“She brought out the light and the plight and the importance of caregivers,” he said. “She was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met.”
One of his favorite memories of the First Lady was when she came down to Florida for the presentation of a big loan to fix a pipeline which highlighted her straight-shooting sense of humor.
“People were very gracious. And she said, ‘Well, we had to do it, my understanding is it leaks. And the people farther down the pipeline aren’t getting any water. So it’s the right thing to do,’” he said.
But he said her legacy extends beyond the public work she did.
“Family was very important to her,” Hightower added. “She was there for him and he was there holding her hand to the very end. It’s a very touching, important story about true love, the real thing. We can all learn that.”
Memorial events for former First Lady Rosalynn Carter are scheduled for next week in her home state of Georgia.