Last August, former President Jimmy Carter announced that he had stage IV metastatic melanoma — a type of skin cancer — that had spread to his liver and brain. In November, despite his poor health, Carter traveled to Memphis to announce that he'd be back this summer for Habitat for Humanity's 33rd annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project.
"I told the news reporters I'd be back next year. I didn't know if I was going to come back or not," said Carter last week from the Memphis worksite. He's cancer-free now, thanks to a new cancer drug called Keytruda.
Carter, his wife Rosalynn, and country stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood spent all of last week in Memphis helping more than 1,500 volunteers for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis build 19 new homes in Bearwater Park, just north of Uptown. They also worked on 10 neighborhood beautification projects in Uptown and six "aging in place" projects.
Last Thursday, after wrapping up a day's work in the Memphis heat, Carter took a few minutes to talk with the Flyer about cancer, his work with Habitat, his Sunday school classes, and the current presidential election season. — Bianca Phillips
Flyer: What's it like getting back to good health after such a scare?
Jimmy Carter: I feel like I have a second chance at life. A year ago in August, I thought I had two or three weeks to live. It'd already moved to part of my liver, and I've had four different cancers in my brain. I was prescribed some new medicine, and it worked on me, thank goodness. But I'm still checking my cancer status pretty regularly. So far, I've been very lucky.
You've been doing these annual Habitat projects since 1984. How did you get started with Habitat?
We had worked on Habitat projects in our local town for a couple of years. Then, [Habitat] had a very serious problem in New York City, and we thought we'd get maybe six people to go with us. But we got 42 people to go up with us, and it's grown from there. We went back to New York the second year and Chicago the third year. Then we started going overseas every other year, so we've been to 14 foreign countries, some of them several times. The largest we had was 14,000 volunteers at one time, and we built 293 houses in five days. That was in the Philippines.
Are there any Habitat homeowners whose stories have stuck with you?
I met one [future Bearwater Park Habitat homeowner] here Monday morning, and he told me that seven years ago, he was living under a bridge. He was addicted to drugs, and he decided to turn his life around. He got a job at a fast food place, and now he's in charge of Chick-fil-A's kitchen. He told me about all the different sandwiches that Chick-fil-A makes.
What construction skills are you best at?
The detail work. I'm a furniture maker. I make beds and chairs. So I like the detail work at the end of a project. Today, I've been putting on siding, and the first day, I got make the walls. I can do the whole thing.
You teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Are you there most Sundays?
We try to be in Plains on most Sundays. When I'm not there on Sunday, the town kind of dries up. Nobody's going to the local restaurants. But when I'm there, we have anywhere from 200 to 850 visitors coming to Plains. We only have 650 residents to start with, so we double the size of the town when I teach Sunday school.
What do you make of this presidential campaign season?
It's been an unprecedented campaign season. The standards of campaigning and criticizing your opponents have never been this bad. There's been a massive infusion of money into campaigns from very wealthy people, so the [wealthy] have a lot more influence now. Once the campaign is over and the candidate goes into office, no matter which party they represent, they'll have very rich people who helped them get into office, and now they'll have access to them and their lobbyists. The average family doesn't have lobbyists to take care of them. That's been the cause of a growing disparity in income between the richest people and the poorest people.
Who are you voting for?
Well, I'm a Democrat, and I've always been a Democrat.
Have you had any time to explore Memphis?
We've been to Beale Street. We went to Central BBQ. We had a visit to the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid, and we went up to the top. It's one of the most remarkable stores in the world, and it's right here in Memphis. It's a wonderful tourist attraction y'all have. I'm an outdoorsman — a hunter and a fisherman. [We're staying] on the 18th floor of a hotel, and when we got to the top of the Pyramid, we could look down on our hotel room. And it's a wonderful view of the Mississippi River.