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Thursday, March 9, 2017 12:15 am

My visit with the Carters in Plains

Plains, Georgia…Six former and current presidents are alive today, but there’s only one you can meet, get photographed with and visit his new solar farm.

Jimmy Carter, the only president who taught Sunday school while in the White House, continues to teach at 10 a.m. almost every Sunday at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, two and a half hours southwest of Atlanta.

We were advised to arrive at 6 a.m. to avoid having to sit in the overflow room with a video feed. We did, and sat in the third row.

The session was led off by a no-nonsense tough woman, who taught Amy Carter fourth grade. Jan Williams, who owns the only hotel in Plains, runs the show. She sets the rules in a way that you don’t even want to come close to breaking them. Plus, she has the Secret Service to back her up.

The 92-year-old Carter flashed his signature big grin as he walked into the church with his wife, Rosalynn. He began by asking his new students where they were from. One yelled, North Korea, and Carter remarked that he had conducted negotiations there. A woman said she was from Washington, D.C., and Carter responded, “I once lived there.”

Next, Carter talked about his week. On Presidents’ Day he spoke at the former Plains High School about the Camp David talks that led to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. “We finally got agreement,” Carter said, “because we all shared faith in one god.” Tuesday he went to Atlanta for a brain scan, as it was only about a year ago that he announced at another Sunday school class that he was cancer free. Carter had also met with officials from the YKK zipper company.

On Friday, Carter called Tom Perez and pledged his support for Perez, the eventual winner of the Democratic National Chairman election that Saturday. Carter told Perez, “You gotta talk to white men because we vote too.” In the presidential race, though, the owner of a Plains bookstore Carter frequents reported that Carter strongly backed Bernie Sanders, while Rosalynn supported Clinton.

Carter concluded his opening remarks by declaring we’re a resilient country and asking if there was anybody present whose ancestors weren’t immigrants. Laughter was the only response.

The lesson was from Jeremiah 31:31-37 about the Israelites’ exile to Babylonia (present day Iraq). Carter said he worried if he had done enough good deeds to get God’s love, grace and mercy, but concluded you have it to start with. “A good person is someone who follows the example of Jesus Christ…it is not mysterious. This is reassuring to me.”

After the church service following the Sunday school, Carter and his wife posed for individual pictures with everyone. When I stepped up, I told Carter I had just returned from Panama and that he’s a revered figure there due to his signing of the Panama Canal treaty. Carter then flashed his huge smile.

A short drive from the church, 3,852 solar panels were just erected on Carter’s former 10-acre peanut and soybean field. Carter cut the ribbon on the 1.3 megawatt project Feb. 8. It was built by SolAmerica and is projected to produce 55 million kilowatts over the 25-year agreement with Georgia Power. Carter’s solar panels provide more than half the electricity needs of Plains, population 758. Carter, who put solar panels on the White House, only to see them removed by President Ronald Reagan, told the New York Times in February that he hopes President Trump, who pushed coal in the election, doesn’t “do the same thing…and say we can be sufficient ourselves without renewable energy.”

At lunch Caroline, a longtime Plains resident, told us that sitting at the same table, she once saw a helicopter land on the adjacent baseball field, and out walked President Anwar Sadat. The late Egyptian president visited Carter in Plains after Carter left the presidency. She also said Carter greets everyone whenever he dines at one of the two restaurants in Plains. Two years ago then 87-year-old Rosalynn even led a parade through Plains on a motor scooter!

There are four historical sites in Plains, which will easily occupy the rest of your day, including Carter’s boyhood home and the Plains High School, now a museum. A quote from Carter’s former teacher and principal there, Julie Coleman states: “Students, always do your best – someday one of you may grow up to be president.”

Sam Cahnman is the former Ward 5 Alderman.  A Carter Center led delegation of Chinese officials visiting Springfield to learn about our democracy met with Cahnman in 2006 when he was the Democratic candidate for state representative.

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