The Restoration of Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter's transformation from statesman into social activist, Habitat for Humanity volunteer and wood craftsman.


| November/December 1987



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A Habitat "barn raising" in Carolina produced 14 homes for American families.


PHOTO: ARTHUR GRACE/TIME MAGAZINE

From president to chairman of the boards, President Jimmy Carter transitions from politics to home woodworking and carpentry for Habitat for Humanity. 

The Restoration of Jimmy Carter

Maybe it's because I, too, was born and raised in a small south Georgia town, but I found sitting down to talk to Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter as comfortable as lazing in a porch swing on a summer afternoon, sipping minty iced tea. Just such a swing overlooks a roaring mountain stream at the Garters' log cabin retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along with the cabin's other furniture, the swing was designed and built by the former president, a master woodworker who selects and cuts the trees for such projects from his 160-acre farm. He strips off the bark (which he sometimes uses for caning) and shapes the wood into furniture and other items destined to become heirlooms.

"My daddy was a good man with tools," he recalls, "so learning how to use them was as natural as breathing for us. If something broke, we had to fix it ourselves. You didn't call somebody in to repair something or replace it with something new. We had these skills—all farmers did during the Depression years—and we had very well equipped shops, both for woodworking and blacksmithing."

Over the years, Carter has made some 50 household items, about half of which he has given away as gifts. But some pieces still sit around the family's Plains house and have been in use for over 30 years. His wife is quick to point out, however, that his skills improved as time went on. "When we came home from the Navy in 1953, he built a sofa and a lounge chair for the back porch. He used nails in them. Now he builds everything without nails. He's studied woodworking and worked at it, and he's made really beautiful furniture for our home—including a pencil post bed and tables by the side."

His woodworking aptitude served Carter well during his political campaigns, particularly when meeting factory workers. "You don't have to say but a few things to people who work in a factory before they realize that you, yourself, have been a laborer. It may be a different kind of skill from theirs, but there's a rapport, sort of like in a fraternity, among people who work with their hands."

Once he campaigned his way to the presidency, Carter occasionally managed to slip in a few hours at the carpenter's shed at Camp David, because, in his opinion, "What we need in our lives is an inventory of factors that never change. I think that skill with one's own hands—whether it's tilling the soil, building a house, making a piece of furniture, playing a violin or painting a painting—is something that doesn't change with the vicissitudes of life. And for me, going back to the earth or going back to the woodshop have always been opportunities to reinforce my basic skills. No matter if I was involved in writing a book, conducting a political campaign, teaching at Emory University or dealing with international affairs, I could always go back—at least for a few hours at a time—to the woodshop.That's meant an awful lot to me. It's a kind of therapy, but it's also a stabilizing force in my life—a total rest for my mind.





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