AMERICUS — Someone with experience that includes time as Georgia’s governor, a four-year term as the nation’s commander-in-chief and recognition as a Nobel laureate has to start somewhere. In the case of many, it begins with an education.
Former President Jimmy Carter gives much credit for his achievements to the institution that is now known as Georgia Southwestern State University. Seventy-five years after his time at the college, even as he celebrated his 93rd birthday, Carter said that he maintains strong pride in his heritage.
“I am very proud of Georgia Southwestern and the progress it has made,” he said in a ceremony held there last month in his honor. “This is where I got my start, and I have always loved this place.”
Carter had had ambitions of attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis from the time he was a young boy. In 1941, he started undergraduate coursework in engineering at what was then Georgia Southwestern College after graduating from Plains High School.
The following year, he transferred to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, before beginning his appointment at the Naval Academy in 1943.
During his brief time at GSW, Carter was one of four freshmen to etch his signatures in the wet cement of the administration building’s driveway in February of 1942. His signature was removed in 2014 for preservation purposes and mounted in the new Presidential Plaza adjacent to that driveway. The signatures of his three classmates remain in their original place.
The four students were said to be selected because of their position as perceived leaders. At the time, Carter was working as a chemistry lab assistant.
Asked minutes prior to the dedication of the plaza on Sept. 22 if he felt he was worthy of the early honor, Carter responded, “At the time, no.”
Carter said he saw many of his classmates go back and forth between school and home, but he decided to fully engage himself in the college experience. Despite his hometown being nearby, he opted to live on campus.
Now, he is working nearly full-time at the Carter Center in Atlanta — and on his 37th book. The Carter Center has allowed work to advance in providing peace programs and health programs to millions. It is a pursuit that started at an institution in Southwest Georgia. And the institution is one that Carter said he has seen expand not just in educational opportunities but diversity as well.
“I am proud of the accomplishments (of GSW),” he said. “I am very grateful for what it did for me. I always had a close attachment to Georgia Southwestern. It meant a lot to me.”
Another interesting fact about Carter is that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, more then 20 years after he left the Oval Office in the hands of Ronald Reagan, for his efforts in working toward world peace and human rights.
The Nobel comes with a cash prize, much of which Carter said he gave back to GSW for the purpose of advancing opportunities there.
Carter grew up in an area populated primarily by black families. He said that made him comfortable with people who did not look like him. This was as big factor in his future work in human rights and peace, which he said he took with him to Washington, D.C., and the White House.
His early upbringing is also why, Carter told a crowd during the Presidential Plaza ceremony, he made a point of getting through his 1977-81 term without having to drop a bomb.
Before his presidency, and his time as Georgia’s 76th governor, he was a member of the Georgia State Senate from 1963-67. He used his influence in the Education Committee and Appropriations Committee to promote GSW to four-year status.
While fighting for this accomplishment, Carter said he had to clash with U.S. Rep. Bo Callaway, who wanted that support to go to Columbus.
“I struggled for a number of months, but I prevailed,” Carter said.
The Carters’ connection to GSW is also meaningful to the former commander-in-chief’s wife of nearly 71 years, Rosalynn Carter, who attended the college for a short time and has a caregiving center and health complex there bearing her name.
“We are finely attuned to Georgia Southwestern,” Jimmy Carter said. “Hopefully that will maintain our marriage for another year or two.”
When Carter walked onto the GSW campus in 1941 and signed that wet cement the following year, it was hard to predict how the next several decades would play out. Neal Weaver, the current president of GSW, made a comment to that effect at the plaza’s dedication.
“I doubt there was anyone there in 1942 that thought we would be here in 2017, or what the impact of one of those individuals would be,” Weaver said on Sept. 22. “You never know how far your impact may reach.”