If you live in Plains, Georgia, population around 700, you are probably familiar with Jan Williams. She is an enthusiastic ambassador for the town that she’s lived in for over 50 years. Jan has made thousands of friends over the years, not the least of which are former President Jimmy Carter, who celebrated his 98th birthday on October 1st, and his wife, former first lady Rosalynn. This story underscores how teaching forged a friendship with a President.
Jan Williams may not have wound up in Plains had she not met a good looking guy named George one day at the swimming pool. Jan recalls, “This gentleman showed out on the diving board. He could do every kind of dive, flip, it didn’t matter. I didn’t know that gentleman. When he walked by my chair at the pool, I said, ‘You’re very good at that.’ He stopped and introduced himself to me. I ended up marrying that gentleman after I finished college.”
Jan grew up on a big farm about 30 miles from Plains. She played basketball. In fact, she went to Berry College in Rome, Georgia on a basketball scholarship. Jan’s education at Berry prepared her to become a teacher.
“I ended up teaching the fourth grade here in Plains. I liked teaching the younger students, and I was thrilled to have Amy Carter sit in my classroom.”
The year was 1976 and the soon-to-be President and Mrs. Carter’s daughter made a good impression on Jan.
“Amy was an excellent student…very, very smart. She always wanted to have her work done, and she loved to read.” Jan still has cherished keepsakes from those school days, including a Ronald McDonald valentine from Amy.
Jan was no stranger to the Carters. She says, “I have known President Carter…to me he’s Mr. Jimmy…since I was maybe in my early teens because he served on the school board here in our county. My father was school superintendent.”
Jan not only served as Amy’s teacher but also as her personal secretary. Amy started to get a lot of mail from children who wanted to know things like: What cartoons do you like? Do you have a boyfriend? What do you like to eat? Do you have to clean your plate? Amy’s dad said the mail needed to be answered. Jan could get the answers from Amy and respond accordingly.
Jan says, “I typed them out letter by letter on a regular typewriter. At the end of the letter I put: would you ask your mom and dad to vote for my daddy? Then Amy would hand sign them.”
When Amy’s dad was elected President, Jan’s special relationship with Amy paved the way for another important assignment.
“One day I was up at the house and Mr. Jimmy said: ‘Jan, we’ve got to be sure Amy is taken care of when we get to Washington. I’ve got to have somebody with her from the time we leave Plains until you want to come back home, so she can make this adjustment the best way she can.’ And I said, what do you want me to do? He said, ‘I want you to fly with us to Washington.'”
So Jan was on the President-elect’s plane to D.C. for the inauguration. Jan says she spent a lot of time on that flight caring for the family’s pet Siamese cat. Jan stayed in the Blair House with the Carters on the eve of the inauguration.
Jan recalls, “The next morning at breakfast, Mr. Jimmy was reading the newspaper and it said ‘Carter Becomes President Today.’ All of a sudden he flapped the paper down and said, “What are you thinking about?’ I said, what am I going to call you after today? He said…Mr. Jimmy, picked the paper back up and kept reading.”
Jan would be Amy’s escort throughout inauguration day. They first attended a church service, then it was on to the Capitol for President Carter’s swearing-in ceremony. It was a cold inauguration day in Washington. Amy was dressed in layers of warm clothes. At one point she joined her mom and dad walking down Pennsylvania Avenue. Jan joined the family in the warm viewing booth to observe the inaugural parade. Then she accompanied Amy to one of the inaugural balls later that night.
Forty-six years later Jan and Amy still maintain contact. “She’s still very gracious to me. She asks about my children. I ask about hers. Then we talk about my grandchildren. Sometimes we’ll talk about something that we did, and she tells me she loves me and that’s enough for me. She will always be my special child.”
Jan returned to Plains to teach for several more years, then retired from the classroom to start a family.
After President Carter finished his term in office and came back home to Plains, he resumed teaching a Sunday School class, something he had done since he was a teenager. His home church is Maranatha Baptist not far from downtown Plains. It became a magnet for out-of-towners on Sunday mornings, and they came from all over.
“The flood gates opened,” according to Jan. “We had hundreds of people coming, and then we had over 300. That’s all we could put in our sanctuary. So we talked about how we were going to get this under control. And Mr. Jimmy said, ‘I know the person that can do that. She can get it under control. I give her my authority to do it how she thinks it needs to be done.'”
The former President was, of course, referring to Jan. She and church leaders decided to implement a number system to help manage the flow of visitors. “They had to come on Saturday afternoon and get a number from my husband. They had to park their car in the parking lot and spend the night in their car. Then the next morning I lined the people up by their numbers.”
Once inside the visitors received very specific instructions from Jan on how to address the President, warning them not to shake his hand, not to ask for an autograph. Those wanting a picture with him and the first lady had to stay for the entire service.
The last time former President Carter taught Sunday School at Maranatha was in November of 2019. During a portion of that lesson he said, “One of the things we can all do…and this is another gift I think…is we can live a completely successful life as judged by God.”
Jan says, “One of the ironic things about his last lesson was that he taught about leaving earth and going to heaven. And in that lesson he said…I am ready to go when God is ready for me.”
When you listen to someone teach hundreds, perhaps thousands of Sunday School lessons like Jan has, you get a true sense of what’s in the teacher’s heart.
“He never, ever wants you to tell him how great he is. He would rather you tell him something great you’ve done for somebody else. He used to say many times in his lesson…all you have to do is love the person in front of you. And wouldn’t this be a better world to live in?”
When it comes to President and Mrs. Carter, Jan counts them as tremendous blessings in her life. “I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. When I think about the opportunity I’ve had, it came because of a young girl in my classroom. And then he (President Carter) had great faith in me that I could help us to have a worshipful time at our church.”
It has been a special friendship for which Jan is eternally grateful. “He still loves to tell you that he loves you. I saw him just a couple of weeks ago and I went over to speak to him and got my kiss on my cheek. He said, ‘You know I love you so much.’ But even if he hadn’t said it to me, I knew that he still loves me just by the little twinkle in his eye. What better man could anybody look at his life and say…I want some of him in my life. And I try to do that every day.”