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Laughs, leis and poignant moments: How former first lady Rosalynn Carter was remembered this week

By Ashley R. Williams, CNN

(CNN) — To the world, Rosalynn Carter was known for her dedication to humanitarian efforts and as a devoted partner and trusted adviser to her husband of 77 years, former President Jimmy Carter.

To her family, the former first lady who died November 19 at age 96 was remembered as a lover of people, a hero, an adventurer and a “cool grandma … who did Tai Chi with a sword,” as her grandson, Jason Carter, shared at her tribute service in Atlanta on Tuesday.

Rosalynn’s final journey through her home state this week stretched over 100 miles, starting and ending in her and Jimmy’s birthplace of Plains, Georgia. As mourners paid their respects and revisited her life and legacy, occasional laughs from heartfelt anecdotes punctuated the somber moments during a series of ceremonies held in her honor between Monday and Wednesday.

“There’s no place on this earth that you can find anyone that has anything bad to say about Rosalynn Carter. Not one word. Not a news article. Not even one person on the left or anybody on the right,” said Pastor Tony Lowden at Wednesday’s private funeral service in Plains.

“I believe … the reason why is because she did not worship the donkey or the elephant. She worshipped the lamb,” Lowden said, referring to Rosalynn’s faith.

Here’s how she was remembered this week.

‘Just like everyone else’s grandmother’

From the mayonnaise included in just about all of her recipes to the birthday cards she stuffed with $20 – even for her adult grandchildren – Rosalynn Carter was like “everyone else’s grandmother,” her grandson Jason Carter told mourners at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church at Emory University on Tuesday.

“When I was 45, $20 bill,” Jason said to laughter from attendees. He reflected on his grandmother as a down-to-earth woman who made sure no one went hungry on a trip – family and strangers alike.

“We were on a flight on Delta from here to somewhere, and we were all sitting in the back of the airplane together and took off,” Jason recalled of one getaway. “We looked over, my grandmother took out this Tupperware of pimento cheese and this loaf of bread and she just started making sandwiches.”

Rosalynn distributed the sandwiches to her grandchildren but didn’t stop there, Jason said.

“Then she started giving them to other people on the plane, and people were sitting there like, ‘Rosalynn Carter just made me this sandwich!’” he said. “They couldn’t believe it, but she loved people.”

She also loved her family and adored the little ones, grandson Josh Carter said.

“She was happiest whenever there’s a new baby, every time we had a new baby in the family, she could not wait to play with them,” Josh Carter said at Wednesday’s private funeral service.

“In the same Carter Center boardroom where my grandparents would host presidents and other world leaders, Mom, in her 80s, would get on the floor and chase babies and play peekaboo,” he said.

‘An adventurer, a voyager, a mountain climber’

Rosalynn Carter was not a person to shy away from adventure, as could be seen in the “fantastic Disney World photos” of her beaming with excitement from the top of the Tower of Terror – her favorite ride – as the Secret Service agents behind her appeared on the verge of being sick, Josh Carter described to chuckles from attendees.

James Earl “Chip” Carter III reflected on his time as a second grader at Plains High School. The school hosted a donkey basketball game fundraiser in which Rosalynn participated, he said Tuesday.

“My mother rode her donkey as fast as it would slowly go, right under the goal, spun around so she was facing its tail, caught the pass and made the winning two points,” he said. “She was my hero that night, and she’s been my hero ever since.”

Jason Carter remembered his grandmother as “an adventurer, a voyager, a mountain climber” who learned to ski in her 60s and continued the hobby for 25 more years.

Rosalynn fished trout streams from Georgia to Wyoming, and from Venezuela to Siberia, Jason shared. The life of adventure she shared with her naval officer husband took her to over 120 countries in her lifetime.

The former first lady’s role as “the rock for our family,” as Jason called her, may have made Rosalynn well suited to explore the mountains, including Kilimanjaro and Fuji, he said his grandmother dared to climb.

“I know that she went to the Everest base camp in Nepal, and I can guarantee you she was looking up at that thing and thinking, ‘if they would just let me,’ and based on what she did, I think she could have done it,” Jason said.

A staunch mental health advocate

Rosalynn’s family highlighted her decades of tireless dedication to mental health reform, and how she and her husband partnered to start the Carter Center to allow her to continue fighting the stigma of mental illness.

“Her advocacy for mental health was a 50-year climb that is as remarkable as any other,” Jason Carter said. “But if you imagine just how far our society has come in the last five years on issues of mental health, and you think that she decided in 1970 to tackle the anxious stigma associated with mental illness, it is remarkable how far she could see and how far she was willing to walk, and that effort changed lives, and it saved lives, including in my own family.”

During a time when “mental illness was looked on as a failure of character,” Rosalynn stepped up to eliminate the stigma and treat it as any other diagnosable, treatable illness, Josh Carter said.

“She built programs such as fighting for mental health parity and teaching journalists how to write about mental illness,” he said. “She saw people that are suffering from mental illness as people who also have hopes and dreams and are worthy of love.”

‘A champion hula dancer’

Carter family members wore leis during Wednesday’s funeral service in honor of the time Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter spent in Hawaii during the former president’s time in the Navy, Matthew De Galan, Carter Center spokesperson, told CNN.

Rosalynn learned hula dancing while living there and once won a hula dancing contest, De Galan said. Josh Carter described his grandmother as a “champion hula dancer.”

Chip Carter said his mother still had the moves well into her later years and while living with dementia.

“One day, my mother was sitting with my wife Becky and she was reminiscing on what it was like to live in Hawaii, and she was talking about learning all the native dances,” Chip said during Tuesday’s tribute.

“She got up from the sofa, pushed her walker away – which she couldn’t take a step without – and proceeded to do the hula for two or three minutes,” he said.

“She grabbed her walker, turned around, sat back on the sofa and turned to my wife and said, ‘that’s how you do it.’”

‘A close and trusted adviser’

Journalist Judy Woodruff, who first met Rosalynn Carter in 1970 as a reporter during Jimmy Carter’s gubernatorial campaign, described how she redefined the role of first lady.

Woodruff shared how Rosalynn would sit in on cabinet meetings and immersed herself in learning about subjects that mattered to her.

“What we witnessed was a first lady who saw her role as going well beyond the essential warm and welcoming host to being a close and trusted, yes, adviser. In essence, an extension of the president himself,” Woodruff said Tuesday.

Woodruff recalled a diplomatic trip Rosalynn took to the Caribbean, Central and South America early in the Carter administration. She wanted to report concerns to Jimmy, Woodruff said, especially ones involving human rights.

“I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of some of the Latin leaders as they realized that they were dealing with a serious, supremely well-informed and well-briefed representative of the President of the United States,” she said, as one of the journalists on the trip. “The person closer to him than anyone else. Criticism ahead of time that she would be dismissed melted away.”

The love of Jimmy Carter’s life

Rosalynn Carter, who married Jimmy Carter in 1946, “spent much of her life in love with my dad,” said the couple’s only daughter, Amy Lynn Carter, on Tuesday. “Their partnership and love story was a defining feature of her life,” she said.

Jimmy Carter, 99, is unable to speak, so Amy Lynn shared a letter written by the former president to his wife 75 years ago while he served in the Navy.

The excerpt read: “My darling, every time I have ever been away from you, I have been thrilled when I return to discover just how wonderful you are.

“While I am away, I try to convince myself that you really are not, could not be as sweet and beautiful as I remember.

But when I see you, I fall in love with you all over again. Does that seem strange to you? It doesn’t to me. Goodbye, darling. Until tomorrow. Jimmy.”

CNN’s Alta Spells and Elise Hammond contributed to this report.

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