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Mass. residents recall Rosalynn Carter’s ‘fierce determination’ as a trailblazer on mental illness

Rosalynn Carter spoke in 2010 at the Rosalynn Carter Forum on Mental Health at the JFK Library.

As the nation mourned the death Sunday of Rosalynn Carter, local residents recalled the 96-year-old former first lady’s visits to Massachusetts and the ways she used her platform as wife and adviser to the nation’s 39th president to advance the causes she believed in.

Carter, the wife of Jimmy Carter, who was president from 1977 to 1981, was outspoken about mental health issues at a time when such personal struggles were not often discussed openly, said Margaret McKenna, a Boston civil rights lawyer who served in the Carter administration as a deputy White House counsel and later led Lesley and Suffolk universities.


“She’s got to be one of the first people who came out and spoke about mental health regularly,” McKenna said in an interview Sunday. “That has a critical impact on everyone who has issues or knows someone who has issues, which is just about everybody. And she talked about it without stigma.”

McKenna praised Carter’s role in 1982 in cofounding the nonprofit Carter Center, which has promoted mental health policy changes and awareness. That emphasis on a topic that was still taboo in the early 1980s was “totally because of her and the influence she had,” McKenna said.

Carter was also remembered Sunday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, where she joined her husband for the institution’s dedication ceremony in 1979 and returned three decades later to speak at a 2010 forum on the “mental health crisis.”

“We remember her fierce determination to improve the lives of those afflicted with mental illness,” said Alan Price, director of the library and museum, in a statement. “We honor her commitment to enriching the lives of all Americans.”

He pointed in particular to her testimony in favor of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1979, in which she described mental health struggles as “the problems of all of our citizens,” adding that, “The people with these problems are ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and our friends.”


First lady Rosalynn Carter greeted Pope John Paul II at Logan International Airport in Boston on Oct. 1, 1979.

Bostonians also recalled Carter greeting Pope John Paul II as he stepped off the plane at Logan International Airport in Boston, the first stop of the pontiff’s historic 1979 tour of the United States.

The first lady, who was raised in the Methodist Church and became a Baptist after her marriage, had reportedly taken on the role of greeting the head of the Roman Catholic Church after Vice President Walter Mondale was called away for the signing of a treaty dealing with the Panama Canal.

As she greeted the pope at the airport, according to Globe coverage at the time, she praised his “compassion for the most vulnerable among us — the poor, the weak, and the sick,” and his “concern for the values of human life.”

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter disembarked from a plane at Logan Airport in Boston on Oct. 20, 1979. David Rodgers/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Spencer Buell can be reached at Follow him @SpencerBuell.