Hammering in the Kentucky hills with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
The lively young girl was excited about her brand-new home, as well she should be. It had been built in a miraculous five hot and sometimes rainy days, by a gang of friendly volunteers with Habitat for Humanity. She was showing me what would soon be her very own room. Telling me where she planned to hang her posters and such — teenage girl stuff. Her name was Tabitha and she was also eager for me to meet her Grandpa, who was among the volunteers at the Pikeville worksite.
So when an elderly man walked into the room, wearing work clothes and a cap that had seen plenty of real labor, I naturally stuck out my hand and said, “Hi! I’m Judy Vicars. You must be Tabitha’s grandfather.”
Another nearby volunteer hissed at me, “Judy, I can’t believe you said that!”
I looked closer at the old man. Then I looked again. The elderly carpenter may have been a grandpa — and indeed he was, many times over — but he wasn’t Tabitha’s.
He was the 39th president of the United States. Building someone he didn’t know a house.
Jimmy Carter is a hero of mine. He was a big part of the reason my husband Joe and I drove to Pikeville (Joe’s hometown) in the summer of 1997 to join more than 1,300 other Habitat for Humanity volunteers in Pike County.
We were part of Habitat’s Jimmy Carter Blitz, an ambitious push to build 52 houses in one week in Appalachia. Jimmy and his wife Rosalynn (another hero) were coming to join us. It was their biggest blitz to date, and part of Habitat’s Hammering in the Hills initiative, which also involved affiliates in portions of Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
The Carters began their volunteer work with Habitat in 1984, a little more than three years after he left the White House. They are credited, rightly, with putting Habitat on the map, raising awareness of the group’s mission. And they’ve driven countless nails. Their annual week-long Carter Work Project has itself built over 4,300 houses.
Since its founding in South Georgia in 1976, Habitat has helped more than 29 million people worldwide gain access to new or rehabilitated housing. Recipients of aid are required to help in construction labor — “sweat equity” — and assume an affordable interest-free mortgage. It isn’t a giveaway program. People are invested in their homes, and proud of them.
My husband and I had arrived in Pikeville on Sunday afternoon, registered, and learned that we had been assigned to the Chloe Creek site right in town. Nine houses were to be built there. Joe was on construction at House No. 4 and I was put to work helping feed the workers, at Pikeville Elementary School. Breakfast and lunch every day, plus snacks delivered to the worksite, and cleanup. At least we food workers had air conditioning at the school in the June heat.
From day one, it was clear Jimmy and Rosalynn were there to work, not bathe in celebrity adulation. Jimmy emphasized that in his opening remarks to the volunteers, saying he didn’t want people asking for autographs or pictures during the week.
“That will mean two people aren’t working — you and me,” he said. He softened this admonition by promising to go around to the dedication of new homes at week’s end, and have pictures taken with house crews and their support people.
Nor did the Carters ask for or accept special treatment. A Pikeville supporter had offered to let Jimmy and Rosalynn stay at their house for the week, but they declined. They said they preferred staying in the Pikeville College dorms with the other volunteers. As Jimmy famously said “Habitat is not a big-shot, little-shot relationship. It’s a sense of equality.”
Still, we did have celebrities at our Blitz. One of the week’s goals was to draw media attention, and so generate both new volunteers and — importantly — much-needed donations, especially large corporate donations. Celebrities at a worksite guarantee the press will show up, even if the distractions they bring aren’t the most efficient way to get a bunch of houses built quickly.
We had visits and a few hours of photo-op work from Newt Gingrich, Crystal Gayle and the Oak Ridge Boys. Hillary Clinton, then in the White House with her husband Bill, spent part of a day working on the First Ladies’ house with an all-woman crew. The other First Ladies were Rosalynn of course and Judi Patton, wife of then-Gov. Paul Patton.
For my own part, I have to say it was incredible to see nothing but home foundations at our Chloe Creek site on Monday morning, then nine finished houses complete with planted trees and flower boxes, on Friday. Tabitha and another volunteer and I had been doing some of that planting the day I called the president her grandpa.
My encounter with Carter was brief. I guess I should have been embarrassed and I probably was. I’m not a very visual person, and he looked older in person than he did from a distance or on TV. But he was very gracious and treated my gaffe as an honest mistake. He seemed in those brief moments — as he had seemed all week — such a good-hearted, down-to-earth person.
I met him up-close only that once, but I felt I’d been in his presence all week, in the spirit of that project, what some might call the true nitty-gritty of his life’s work. His work with Habitat was the work of a good man, far from the worldly power of a president but channeling a higher power more personal than that, an old man with a hammer, a humble man comfortable in his old work clothes, helping build shelter for people in need, asking for nothing in return.
Such a simple thing: Helping fix the world one well-built house at a time. Inspiring others to do the same. Which is how I imagine Jimmy Carter would like to be remembered, in these sad days of our saying goodbye.