By now, most people have probably heard that former President Jimmy Carter has cancer.
Carter gave the details of his illness at a news conference. The cancer, first spotted on his liver earlier this year, has spread to four spots on his brain. He spoke for nearly an hour about the challenges that lie ahead for him, talking calmly and at times with humor, displaying a mental and emotional strength that many of us live our entire lives and never attain.
I have long admired the former president, and to learn that he would have to endure the ravages of cancer was heartbreaking to hear.
While watching Carter explain in great detail his diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan, I thought about my ninth grade English teacher, who greatly admired him. Not only did she admire him, she was fascinated with his command of the English language.
“You know, class, there are some people who are really put off by President Carter’s Southern accent. I’m not, though, because if you really listen closely to him, he speaks perfect English and he speaks it beautifully,” I remember her saying.
Looking back, my guess is that part of my ninth-grade English teacher’s admiration of Carter had a little something to do with her being a born and bred Southerner. I suspect that she was just unapologetically proud to know that someone she could identify with was president.
I can certainly relate.
But it is not Carter’s command of the English language that I admire most about him. Rather, it is his honesty and genuineness of character.
When Carter won the 1976 presidential election over former president Gerald Ford, he came into office facing an energy crisis, inflation and a high unemployment rate.
Nevertheless, with the calm resolve that is his trademark, Carter went to work.
In his four years in office, nearly 8 million jobs were created, the budget deficit decreased, the Department of Education was created, the Social Security system was strengthened and record numbers of women, blacks and Hispanics were appointed to government jobs.
Carter did this all while remaining true to his Southern roots, family ideals and campaign message, having campaigned on uplifting the poor of all races, even at the risk of losing his Southern white base.
Unfortunately for Carter, those accomplishments were overshadowed by the hostage crisis in Iran of 1979, a crisis that cost him the election to Ronald Reagan the following year.
Still, no matter what side of the spectrum you fall on regarding the merits of Carter’s presidency, there’s no denying his dedication to human rights.
Whether it’s seeking peaceful solutions to international conflict, advancing democracy and human rights or promoting economic and social development, Carter has worked with the kind of energy and selflessness usually reserved for men half his age. And for his selflessness, Carter was awarded the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
At 90, Carter still appears spry and hopeful, and you can bet he’ll go down in history as a shining example of what it means to serve humanity.
Now, after showing me and many others how to live, he’s showing us how to face the inevitability of death.
Kelvin De’Marcus Allen is a writer and public relations consultant. He attends law school part-time and he lives in Durham with his wife and children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org