Bessie Lillian Gordy was born in rural Georgia on August 15,
1898, the fourth in a family of nine children. Her father was a
government revenue officer and later a postmaster. She grew up in a
busy, noisy household and never forgot her beginnings.
Lillian entered nursing school in 1920 at Wise Sanitarium in
Plains, Georgia. She met her future husband Earl on a double date
but didn’t like him very much at first. Perhaps opposites
really do attract because Lillian and Earl married right after she
completed her studies.
The Carters raised four children: Jimmy, Gloria, Ruth and Billy.
Jimmy was the outdoors type, Gloria was the independent one who
challenged their strict father, Ruth was a sickly child, and Billy
was an avid reader and a bit of a scamp. Their mom and dad had
different parenting styles; Lillian was less strict than Earl, the
family disciplinarian, but she did leave lists of chores for the
kids to do when she was absent.
Lillian worked first in a hospital and then later in people’s
homes. When she was on 20-hour duty, neighbors looked after her
children. She gave capable, compassionate care to all regardless of
race or ability to pay. In fact, she was usually paid in crops at
harvest time. She owned all the pecan trees on their farm, and
every November she took time off from her nursing duties to
supervise the pecan harvest. She was a shrewd businesswoman who
always received top dollar for her pecans.
During the Depression many folks who were passing through the area
looking for work and better times visited the Carters, who always
greeted them with a meal and a kind word. Lillian wondered why she
had so many of these unexpected visitors while the neighbors had
none. One guest explained that someone had marked the
Carters’ mailbox as being a welcome place to stop.
Earl died of pancreatic cancer in 1953, and Jimmy, much against his
wife’s wishes, left a promising naval career to return home
to run the family business in partnership with his mother. With her
family grown and being widowed, Lillian needed to keep busy and
feel useful again. Her role as housemother for Kappa Alpha
fraternity at Auburn University fulfilled that need for eight
years. She often drove her “boys” around in her
Ruth became an author and evangelist. Gloria was an accountant, and
she and her husband were avid motorcyclists. Billy was an astute
businessman and had a reputation for being a free spirit,
especially when he drank. Sadly, all three died of cancer. Time and
again Lillian soldiered on after each of her devastating
Lillian had a keen mind coupled with vitality and skills that still
begged to be utilized. At age 68 she stepped out boldly when she
joined the Peace Corps. She spent two years nursing in India,
immersed in a very different culture from what she was used to. For
someone who believed in equality for all, she found the caste
system objectionable. Though she suffered many hardships and worked
very long hours during that time, she loved the Indian people and
felt her efforts had been well spent.
Lillian is undoubtedly best remembered as a refreshingly frank,
down-to-earth senior citizen who just happened to be the mother of
the President of the United States. She loved to appear on talk
shows and often upstaged Johnny Carson. During and after her
son’s presidency, she became somewhat of a goodwill
ambassador who traveled the world and was a highly sought-after
speaker. Often she talked about service in the Peace Corps or
disregarding age to lead a full and adventurous life. She spoke off
the cuff and ignored notes and suggestions made by others. No one
was ever certain just what she might say. Not only was she a
remarkable mother, Miss Lillian was a remarkable person.
Reviewed by Carole Turner on January 23, 2011