The relationship former President Jimmy Carter has with Bainbridge State College goes way back – back before there was even a college in Southwest Georgia.
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, marked the first time Bainbridge State hosted a U.S. President in its 40-year history, and the visit from the Nobel Peace Prize-winner was even more special because he was speaking from the building named in honor of his close adviser, the late Charles H. Kirbo.
“I would not have been a former president without Charles Kirbo. In fact, I would not have been a Georgia senator, nor governor, nor president without Charles Kirbo,” said President Carter, who said he made many trips to Kirbo’s hometown of Bainbridge to go quail hunting or visit Kirbo’s farms. One of the things that Kirbo would tell Carter was that there needed a college in Bainbridge. Carter said he is glad he always listened to his close friend.
Highlights from the President’s conversation
During the first 20 minutes of President Carter’s lecture, he recounted some of the lessons he has learned during his 89 years. He said a quote a high school teacher told him affected him the most: “You have to accommodate changing times but cling to unchanging principals.” Carter recited that quote when he was inaugurated as President in 1977 and when he received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.
The other lesson Carter said shaped his life the most. He recounted a job interview with an admiral at the U.S. Naval Academy when he asked, “Did you always do your best?” Carter said he started to think about it and said he did not always do his best because of various distractions such as his courtship with his wife of 68 years, Rosalynn.
The admiral asked why not, and then turned his back on Carter.
“I think that’s the kind of question we all need to ask ourselves in this modern world,” Carter said. “All of us should ask that same question.”
Other topics Carter talked about during the remaining 40 minutes were growing up in a segregated South; how the influx of campaign money has changed the atmosphere in Washington; who his favorite president was, Harry Truman; the foreign leader who had the most influence on him, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; what role his faith played while he was president, and what his first day in office was like.
“When I was president, I prayed more and more fervently than I ever have in my life,” Carter said, saying he prayed every day the Americans being held hostage by Iranian radicals would safely return home.
The one conflict he had when he was sworn in as president was upholding the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
“I never have believed as a Christian that abortion would be approved by Jesus Christ unless it was caused by rape, incest or to save the mother’s life,” Carter said. “When I took the oath of office as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has said abortions are legal. I obeyed that law, but that was the only conflict in my term.”
A question from a youngster in the audience asked President Carter what his first day in office was like.
Carter said the day started when they were driving halfway from Plains to Albany, Ga., to catch a ride on Air Force One when someone asked where was Miss Lillian, Carter’s mother.
“We left Mom at home,” Carter told the audience, which his story of that day drew the most laughs of the evening. He said she apparently was still a little miffed later that day following the inaugural parade when a member of the press asked her if she was proud of her son, she said, “Which one?”
The relationship between President Carter and Mr. Kirbo has been liken to those of other presidential-friend relationships such as former Presidents George H.W. Bush and James A. Baker III, Bill Clinton and Vernon E. Jordan Jr. However, when a U.S. Senator from Georgia died in office shortly after Carter was sworn in as governor, Kirbo declined Carter’s offer of being appointed to fill the vacancy.
“I think that was typical of him. He was so modest,” Carter said of his friend. “He didn’t want to promote himself, but he wanted to promote the things for which he stood.”
In 1962, the Bainbridge-born Kirbo saved Carter from defeat in a rigged state Senate election. Kirbo was an attorney in Atlanta when Carter solicited Kirbo’s advice on the election. That bond and trust never faded as Carter was later elected as Georgia’s governor and then U.S. President after he defeated former President Gerald R. Ford’s re-election bid in 1976, an election in which Kirbo’s advice played a crucial role in its outcome.
While Carter was president, Kirbo would fly to Washington from Atlanta about every two weeks or so and spend a day in the corridors of the West Wing of the White House, dropping in on important officials. Then he would get together with the President and Mrs. Carter to discuss what he had heard and ponder political problems occupying the President.
Kirbo’s connection with the College goes back to 1971 when the state was first considering building a college in Southwest Georgia. Kirbo lobbied for the College to be located in Bainbridge and donated more than 160 acres of the 173 acres the main campus presently sits on.
The Peanut Brigade
Bainbridge residents Vance and Vera Custer’s connection with President Carter was through Kirbo.
Kirbo had called Vance’s late father, Vance Custer Jr., and the late Jim Stone asking them to go to the local airport to meet Carter, who was running for governor at the time, and take him around town to be introduced to fellow residents.
“If Charles called, we did it,” Vera Custer said. When Charles called his hometown friends for help during Carter’s presidential campaign, Mrs. Custer said they went north – becoming part of a team of Southerners known as Jimmy Carter’s Peanut Brigade.
“We had a wonderful time,” Mrs. Custer said. “We were in Scranton (Pennsylvania), and our job was to go door to door and use our southern charm and good-well to motivate voters. … We had a great time and everyone wanted to hear us talk.”
Nifong met Carter in Florida
Thaddeus Nifong, an adjunct instructor at Bainbridge State of Health Sciences and Professional Studies, said he met President Carter during the 1976 presidential campaign when he made a stop in Plant City, Fla., at the Hillsborough County School System, which is where Nifong’s father was area director.
“In 1976, I was 13 years old and by chance was at my father’s office that afternoon after school. I was able to meet Mr. Carter and shake his hand, and then Mr. Carter asked if he could make a telephone call,” Nifong said, saying Carter used his father’s office and telephone to conduct his business. “Mr. Carter was very kind to everyone and was most appreciative for the use of my father’s office and telephone. This memory has stayed with me all these years of what a gracious and kind-spoken man Mr. Carter was and still is.”