“Lydia, this is Jimmy Carter. I used to be president of the United States, as you well remember. I appreciate your friendship toward me. We had a wonderful meeting this morning with your grandson Russell and also Adrienne. . . .You must be a remarkable person as judged by what they had to say about you. This will extend my best wishes to you for a long life and good health. Congratulations on having such a wonderful grandson. Thanks a lot. This is Jimmy Carter. Bye bye.”
Excitedly, my husband Chris and I, along with our friends Russ and Adri, listened over and over to the gentle, unmistakable drawl on the recorded message. We couldn’t believe it was real.
Since Russ’s grandmother Lydia lost her sight last year at 93, Russell and Adrienne have been mailing recordings to her. Filled with sounds from the downtown farmer’s market, barked greetings from their dogs and anything else they think will amuse her, the tapes are a loving gesture from two sweet people.
Russ and Adri got invited to be birding guides for President and Mrs. Carter during their recent visit to Utah. Back in April, the four of us had made plans to see President Carter’s Sept. 4 lecture at Sundance Resort. We ordered tickets and arranged to stay overnight. We were excited.
But when Russ and Adri’s invitation came, things got a lot more exciting. The president’s people worked with Russ on the driving route for the birding trip. This scenario came to life in my mind:
Russ: “Mr. President, if the motorcade could quietly pull over next to that pond up ahead, we might be able to catch sight of a scarlet ibis.”
Concerned Secret Service guy into his sleeve as President Carter opens the limousine door: “Peanut is out of the shell. Repeat, Peanut is out of the shell.”
Russ hardly knew his own name when they came to get us for the drive to Sundance. He had two fleece vests to present to the Carters, each embroidered with a beautiful avocet.
Adri, Russ and Chris were discussing whether Chris and I might have a gift bag for the vests. I asked, “A gift bag out of our closet? A recycled one? Why am I the only one of four adults who knows that you can’t give a used gift bag to a president of the United States?” Three of my favorite respecters of the planet blinked back at me, saying that if there ever was a president who would be gracious about it, it would be Jimmy Carter. They had me there.
Late that night, our friends got a call. The president had hurt his leg and couldn’t go birding in the morning, but would Russ and Adri join the Carters for breakfast instead? The Carters understood how much our friends had been anticipating their adventure.
Adri called me in a panic. “I can walk in the woods with anyone, but breakfast, oh my God - those are different skills!” I told her to just start the meeting by saying, “Mr. Pleasure, it’s a president.” I promised her that after that, everything would be fine.
Our friends will never forget that day. They found Jimmy and Rosalynn were very much a team of equals. During breakfast, Russ mentioned that he had hoped to tape some sound for his grandmother on the birding trip. They talked about elections, Nepal, Tibet, the Dalai Lama. Adri noticed the host skillfully, graciously navigating the conversation away from politics.
As the meal ended, the Carters, already wearing their new vests, asked if it would “be alright” to get a picture of the breakfast foursome. In the photo, President Carter has his arm around Adri; Rosalynn’s arm is hooked through Russell’s. Everyone is smiling. Afterward, our friends called us, screaming with excitement.
A Carter aide fetched Russ’s tape recorder and later, at the lecture, handed it back. Leaving Sundance, we listened in the car to the message to Grandma Lydia. The idea that a former U.S. president, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the humanitarian powerhouse behind the Carter Center, the author of more than a dozen books, an elderly man traveling with an injured leg, would bother to record a message for a total stranger speaks most eloquently for itself.
Days later, Russ and Adri received a specially inscribed book in the mail. A few days after that, grandma Lydia received a handwritten note from Mrs. Carter.
Chris was 19, I was 16, Russ was 13 and Adri was 11 when Jimmy Carter became president in 1976. I remember that people made fun of him for being a simple peanut farmer. They dissed his southern drawl and pronunciation. But as Carter himself said at Sundance, there’ll never be another regular guy who gets elected president. Now it’s zillionaire vs. zillionaire and that excludes a lot of great people.
I have to wonder if, instead of one of the zillionaires, what we really need most this November is a kindly, humble, peace-loving, peanut farmer who turned 80 on Friday.
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.