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A Kazoo Band and the Hidden Legacy of President and Mrs. Carter

August 16, 2023 Peter Mather Ohio University

There I was in 2002, standing before the former President of the United States and now globally engaged citizen, Jimmy Carter, as he welcomed me to serve as the director of educational programs for the Carter Center. It was one of those pivotal times in my life when I (figuratively) pinched myself and thought, “This is a moment I will remember.” As I write this reflection more than 20 years later, President Carter is receiving home hospice care in the place of his humble origins, Plains, Georgia. For over 40 years, he has worked with his life partner, Rosalynn, and many others to eradicate deadly and debilitating diseases; negotiate truces around long-standing, entrenched conflicts; and champion the advancement of democracy.

My primary responsibility at The Carter Center was to direct the internship program. In this role, I performed the administrative work of recruiting, selecting, and orienting interns. The Educational Program staff provided educational and career development programs, as well as ongoing opportunities for the interns to build a community among themselves and with the Carter Center staff. As a program director at the Center, I participated in a quarterly meeting of senior staff members. In this regular meeting, there would be an opportunity to check-in with program-specific updates, which would go something like this:

Conflict Resolution program director: “One of our staff members is in northern Uganda, negotiating with the rebel forces to alleviate the conflict with southern Sudan.”
Democracy program director: “I was speaking on the phone last week with Hugo Chavez (President of Venezuela) about his government’s efforts to revise the Constitution.”
Health program director: “We will soon eradicate guinea worm from Ghana and Nigeria.”
Me: “Our interns performed in a kazoo band at the Peanut Festival parade in Plains (GA) last week.”

Clearly, one of these was not like the others. Indeed, the significant work being accomplished by the staff at The Carter Center made directing the internship program seem insignificant. But President Carter saw it differently.

Like all things President Carter designed, the internship program was approached thoughtfully. During his presidency, he became aware that there was a large percentage of members of congress who did not own passports. He was deeply concerned about the provincialism this signaled. So, when the Carter Center was launched, President Carter saw the internship program as an opportunity to provide a forum for young people to become engaged in the kind of international humanitarian work that would connect them to global concerns. He recognized that this experience would not only raise their awareness, but it would also inspire them to a lifetime of service, especially understanding the gifts of their privilege and the realities of the world’s interdependence.

The core activity of the interns is the direct work with the Peace and Health Program initiatives. They are also engaged in both formal and informal programming offered by the Educational Programs team. Importantly, they have also been graced over the past few decades with direct interactions with President and Mrs. Carter. Despite their full schedules, the Carters committed to devoting time to make connections with the interns. Each semester, there would be two formal engagements—one in The Carter Center and the other would occur over the course of a weekend in Plains. During these times, the Carters would answer the interns’ questions about their lives and work. They also asked students about their experience with their internships and their life goals.  They would discuss what life was like, growing up in the segregated South, while leading the interns around the property of the President’s boyhood home. These formal and planned interactions were often supplemented by occasions when President and Mrs. Carter would stop by the interns’ work areas or invite them into their offices for conversation.

Both President and Mrs. Carter displayed an incredible combination of strength and warmth in their interactions with staff and interns. President Carter’s 80th birthday party, which I had the pleasure to attend, included a combination of White House alumni, Carter Center staff members, family members, and community members from Plains. The range of their friendships was striking, as the event drew people across racial and economic boundaries. It was truly a testimony to the extraordinary rich and diverse dimensions of their lives, and a reminder that you did not have to be someone rich or famous to matter to them.

A few months after losing my mother to cancer, my father and I traveled to Plains to see President Carter teach his Sunday School class. After the church service, my dad and I had a chance to briefly talk with President and Mrs. Carter. I recall President Carter saying to my father, “Rosalynn and I appreciate your son’s work. We feel like we’ve adopted Pete.” This was a gift to me and my dad. He wanted us to know that I, the person who led interns in kazoo bands and celebrated their birthdays, was important to him. Just as he regularly did with the interns, he validated the contributions I made to the community that bore his name.

I left The Carter Center in 2005 to begin my career as a faculty member. Despite my departure, the experience with the Carters left me with important lessons for my work with college students. The first is that the work educators do with students is an honorable and significant investment. Whether we are finding cures to diseases or bringing together students to celebrate a birthday, lives are being changed. Indeed, today while students are confronting considerable global challenges, the simple gestures of noticing and supporting students make a difference.

The Carters’ impact on the interns extended beyond recognizing and supporting them. It was about providing substantive opportunities for learning. President and Mrs. Carter understood that the richest student engagements are those that bring together heart and head. The issues the Carter Center addressed were daunting, such as eradicating diseases and bringing peace to conflicts that ran deep. When interns were engaged in addressing these issues, they both saw and felt human suffering, and they were motivated to join with their peers and their supervisors to seek ways to alleviate the pain and challenges associated with disease and war. Interns were confronted with social and moral complexity. While there were no silver bullets to address these problems, the interns invested themselves by studying, discussing, and sometimes acting on these issues by venturing into the field with their supervisors. The habits of heart and head they exercised in their internships are a model for educational practices that can make a difference every day in educators’ work with students.

Finally, the Carters demonstrated that the road less travelled can be a redemptive option. President Carter would occasionally mention that the humanitarian work of The Carter Center was born of a crushing and painful loss. That is indeed an inspiration to all of us who encounter setbacks and failures of our own. No former presidential unit has rebounded to take on the challenges of the world as have President and Mrs. Carter. May we all draw from a similar reservoir of hope and conviction when we experience loss, and like the Carters serve as role models for our students to do the same.

This is written with gratitude for the transformative influence of the Carters on the lives of many, including thousands of interns and staff members of the Carter Center, and especially for those who are invisible to many, but who have been seen and whose lives were touched and even transformed by a couple from Plains, Georgia.