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Presidents Day: People honored Jimmy Carter, now in hospice care, in his hometown

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

With former President Jimmy Carter in hospice care, today's President's Day observance in his hometown - Plains, Ga. - took on extra meaning. People there were reflecting on Carter's time in office and the work he did in the years that followed. Georgia Public Broadcasting's Grant Blankenship has more from Plains.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP, BYLINE: The centerpiece of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site is the former Plains High School, Carter's alma mater. And today the old auditorium, with its folding wooden seats, was decked out as it has been for over a decade on Presidents Day - with flags, red-white-and-blue bunting and memorabilia belonging to historian Laurence Cook laid out for his presentation.

LAURENCE COOK: You know, it's ironic today that I'm giving this presentation on the lesser-known presidents. And I would say, as a historian, I'll make this statement. I believe he's the best-known president around the world.

BLANKENSHIP: Cook says Carter loves these talks about the nearly forgotten details of presidential history and is usually here on Presidents Day. This year, of course, is different. And so Cook says he was tempted to change course.

COOK: But I knew that President Carter would want me to stay with the planned program and not make it all about him.

BLANKENSHIP: In conversation around Plains, people echo the theme of a selfless Jimmy Carter again and again. Like Carter, Rebecca Davenport is a fan of these President's Day talks in Plains. And she has her own piece of memorabilia, a 1977 Carter inaugural pin, hanging from her sweater.

REBECCA DAVENPORT: He's our only president from Georgia, so why not wear it today, right?

BLANKENSHIP: And it's not a replica. It's the real deal.

DAVENPORT: Isn't that crazy? And so I'm celebrating him today.

BLANKENSHIP: So what is she celebrating?

DAVENPORT: I think his concern for the underdog as someone who might have had a controversial presidency. But afterwards, I think the whole country can confirm that we admire him and his spirit.

BLANKENSHIP: Bernadette Backhaus and Spencer Horne were passing through Plains on vacation when they stopped in the main street across from where out-of-town journalists are already gathering. Backhaus says they like to cram as much history as they can into these road trips. And they came today with knowledge of Carter's condition.

BERNADETTE BACKHAUS: Yeah, we were in the hotel room last night, just sitting in the room, just watching TV. And we looked at our phones, and we were like, oh, my God. He's - you know, he went into hospice care. You know, it's kind of sad.

BLANKENSHIP: Backhaus says she's read a few of Carter's books, and she wishes more people saw him the way she does.

BACKHAUS: Well, I mean, how do I say this? And he was definitely into human rights, the respect of people and things like that. And it's just a shame people don't consider him a good president with what he did do.

BLANKENSHIP: Like Baucus, Angelique Chemin says she was shocked by the news that Carter is in hospice.

ANGELIQUE CHEMIN: I mean, it's kind of breaking my heart. And I feel very sad for his wife and his family to have such a gentle, sweet soul, you know, leave our world.

BLANKENSHIP: For Chemin, it's Carter's lived example of the central tenet of his Christian faith that inspires.

CHEMIN: As they say in the Bible, love everybody. It never says love everybody, but - it just says love everybody.

BLANKENSHIP: It's a lesson Chemin says she hopes she remembers even after Carter passes away. For NPR News, I'm Grant Blankenship in Plains, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERRACE MARTIN SONG, "THIS MORNING (FEAT. ARIN RAY AND SMINO)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.