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Friends, family, presidents and first ladies honor Rosalynn Carter at memorial

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Every living first lady was in Atlanta today to remember one of their groundbreaking predecessors, Rosalynn Carter, who died last week at the age of 96. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris also attended the service, which was held at Glenn Memorial Church on the campus of Emory University. WABE's Sam Gringlas joins us from the church lawn. Hey, Sam.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Tell me what you saw, how today has unfolded.

GRINGLAS: Well, just after 1 p.m., Rosalynn Carter's grandchildren flanked the steps of this historic church as her casket was carried in through the big front doors. About 800 people were gathered inside for this invite-only tribute. But outside, mourners pressed up against the Secret Service barriers trying to catch a glimpse and pay their respects to a woman who is really beloved in Georgia on both sides of the aisle.

KELLY: Yeah. And tell me more about what happened inside. It was quite a service, from what I could hear trying to listen in.

GRINGLAS: Yeah. And I'm told that the former first lady had a hand in every detail of it - from the guest list to the scripture and the musical selections, which included a performance by the Carters' friends, country singers Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRISHA YEARWOOD: (Singing) Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us...

GRINGLAS: Carter's husband of 77 years, President Jimmy Carter, looked on from a wheelchair up front. He's 99 years old and has been in hospice care since February. First Lady Jill Biden and former first ladies Melania Trump, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton - they all sat together in a front pew. And I think that just underscores how Carter redefined the role of first lady. Not only was she the president's closest adviser, but Carter attended cabinet meetings. She liaised with foreign leaders and testified on Capitol Hill.

KELLY: Yeah. And a defining part of what she was known for in her work was wielding her platform to advocate for caregivers, to advocate for better mental health care at a time when mental illness was shrouded in stigma. Did people touch on that in remembering her today?

GRINGLAS: They did. And those efforts continued well beyond her four years as first lady. Carter's grandson, Jason Carter, said his grandmother was built for what he called long journeys - tackling these seemingly intractable issues like mental health, whether it was in her own rural corner of Georgia or abroad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON CARTER: As the song says, she knew what comes back when you give your love away. And for my grandmother, what came back was this unshakable strength and this powerful faith and not just an abiding love, but a fierce, determined, adventurous love that sustained her on all of these long journeys.

GRINGLAS: And, her grandson said, the arc of Carter's life is quite remarkable, given she was born just a few years after women were granted the right to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: When she started in politics, she'd never talked to a group of people bigger than her Sunday school class. And then she elected a governor and a president. She shaped our national policies. She faced down dictators herselves (ph) on issues of human rights. She built the Carter Center from an idea into a powerhouse for human rights.

KELLY: And Sam, this is Day 2 of formal events memorializing Rosalynn Carter. What comes now?

GRINGLAS: The motorcade carrying Carter's casket is making its way back to the Carters' hometown, rural Plains, Ga., where family and friends will gather at the congregation where the Carters, for years, taught Sunday school, Maranatha Baptist Church. Then, Rosalynn Carter will be buried near the modest home in Plains that she shared with her husband for more than six decades.

KELLY: Aw. WABE's Sam Gringlas in Atlanta - thank you, Sam.

GRINGLAS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.