DATE: Monday, August 11, 1997               TAG: 9708080798

SECTION: LOCAL                   PAGE: B3   EDITION: FINAL 



                                            LENGTH:   86 lines


I have always been a fan of Miss Lillian Carter, the feisty and outspoken mother of President Jimmy Carter. She would have been this coming Friday. When I recently discovered, however, that not only was she an admirer of Jane Austen (my favorite novelist) but an avid reader of whodunits as well (another of my personal addictions), I knew I had to write a column in her memory.

A rebellious liberal from her childhood, Miss Lillian, who first saw the light of day as Bessie Lillian Gordy on Aug. 15, 1898, in Richland, Ga., early flaunted her parents' objections and became a nurse. By the time she married James Earl Carter Sr. in 1923, she not only ignored the cold shoulders of her self-righteous neighbors by ensuring that his black farm hands received proper medical treatment, she also occasionally received some of them in her parlor.

``I've always had a feeling for the underdog, right or wrong,'' she later told an interviewer. ``And I guess it's the fact that I'm different. I'm not in the same mold as some of the people I know.''

Thirty years after her marriage, after bearing four children, Miss Lillian was left a widow. Her offsprings were the future president; motorcycle-riding Gloria (later Mrs. Walter Spann); Ruth (later Mrs. Robert Stapleton), a lay Baptist minister and faith healer; and Billy, whose jovial beer-guzzling propensities resulted in a nationally advertised brew being named in his honor. This mixed progeny gave rise many years later to one of Miss Lillian's cogent tongue-in-cheek quotes: ``When I look at my children,'' she quipped, ``I say, `Lillian, you should have stayed a virgin.' ''

Bored ``because everyone had a husband and I didn't,'' the recently widowed Miss Lillian became a house mother of Kappa Alpha fraternity at Auburn University in Alabama. Later she took on the management of a nursing and convalescent home in Blakely, Ga., eventually resigning because ``most of the patients are younger than I am.'' Still restless, Miss Lillian, at 67, became a Peace Corps volunteer in India where she ``taught various methods of contraception to unsympathetic male factory workers and assisted with vasectomies.''

Buoyed by her indomitable faith and letters and packages from home, Miss Lillian survived bouts of homesickness by reading the latest mysteries her family sent her, particularly the thrillers of Mickey Spillane, which she devoured ``like a hungry man eating a grape.'' In the meantime, she attended lectures on Hindu mysticism, equating many of its teachings with her basically Golden Rule-oriented religious convictions.

After a two-year stay in India, which Miss Lillian characterized as having ``strengthened my faith in God and my relationship with minorities,'' she returned home with a determination to dedicate the rest of her life to bringing about better race relationships in her native state. ``Hunger and poverty are things I cannot live with,'' she declared, ``and I cannot live with myself unless I do something about them.'' Then, after getting that off her chest, she delivered the punch line. ``I know folks have a tizzy about it, but I like a little bourbon of an evening. I don't much care what they say about it. I'm a Christian, but that doesn't mean I'm a long-faced square.''

When her firstborn was nominated for the United States presidency in 1976, Miss Lillian, who by then had been acclaimed as ``the most liberal woman in Georgia'' as well as ``a Rose Kennedy without the hair dye,'' became a national figure. But the goody-two-shoes line that her son Jimmy persisted on taking riled her to the point that she declared publicly: ``I told him to quit that stuff about never telling lies and being a Christian and how he loves his wife more than the day he met her.'' Then, when the news hungry reporter to whom she had been sounding off had lapped up that choice morsel, she gave him a wink and added, ``There are some things you don't have to go around saying.''

Throughout the Carter administration, during which Miss Lillian branded life in the White House as ``boring,'' she became her son's unofficial ambassador without portfolio. Even so, she continued to be her own woman, speaking out as an independent thinker while representing him. Qualifying her position to an interviewer, who characterized her as ``a lovable interview junkie,'' Miss Lillian declared, ``How could Jimmy ever criticize me? I'm his momma!''

A crusader to the end, Miss Lillian died, aged 84, April 30, 1983. Commenting on her passing, The Ledger-Star declared editorially: ``It was, ultimately, her unaffected openness that set her apart. When she arrived in Israel in December of 1978 to represent her son at the funeral of former Prime Minister Golda Meir, she noted that Mrs. Meir had said she wanted no eulogies. Then, voicing a simple, honest emotion, she said: ``Golda, this is not a eulogy to you. This is just me telling you how I wish I had known you.''

Not to be outdone, the editor of The Virginian-Pilot declared: ``Whatever she did for the 40th president of the United States, Miss Lillian was an instrument of good will in a time of much ill will at home and abroad. She did her family and country proud.'' ILLUSTRATION: Lillian Carter

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