DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — 42 years ago, over a thousand people gathered with eager anticipation in the ballroom of the Dayton Convention and Exhibition Center, where former President Jimmy Carter held an hour-long question-and-answer session for Miami Valley community members.
“It’s really an honor for me to be here with you in [the] Miami Valley,” Carter remarked at the beginning of the Oct. 2, 1980 meeting. “I’ve only been here a few minutes, but I think I can already agree with your city’s motto, and it’s right on the mark. It’s ‘Great in Dayton.’ There’s no question about that.”
Carter’s legacy extends to more recent times, as he became the oldest living former president in American history. Now 98, he has since been under home hospice care since February.
During his visit to the Miami Valley in 1980, Carter engaged with a diverse array of community members, including a 13-year-old named Harlan Louis.
Louis, who currently works as an attorney in Columbus, fondly reminisced about the special memory of meeting the president.
“I remember taking off school and being thrilled to be able to see a president in person. I never imagined that I would be able to speak with him,” Louis said.
“Prior to the town hall, I got picked as one of the questioners. But I was at the back of the line, and they told us that the town hall might end before I got to ask my question. So, for most of the hour, I kept looking at the clock and doing the math hoping that I would get to talk with the president.”
Fortunately, Louis did get the opportunity to pose a question, and he did so with flair. With courage in his heart, the 13-year-old asked Carter, “I would like to know—just suppose that you could not, or you wouldn’t run for president. Who would you rather become president, John Anderson or Ronald Reagan?”
This led to laughter echoing through the room.
“Well, during every town hall meeting I try to pick out one question that I don’t answer,” Carter joked. “I believe the country would prefer a Democratic president, and if I could not run and could not be elected, at this moment my choice would be Fritz Mondale.”
Reflecting on that moment, Louis explained that he wanted to pose a unique question.
“By this point in the campaign every question had been asked and answered,” he said. “So, I tried to come up with something different. I appreciated that he took it in good humor and then used it to have a conversation with me. That day, it seemed like such a long conversation. As I read it now, it surprises me how short it was. The fact that the president took a few extra minutes to with me as a 13-year-old was thrilling.”
A few days later, Louis was pleasantly surprised to receive a personally signed thank-you note from President Carter in the mail.
As the question-and-answer session concluded, a senior from Northridge High School, Ken Day, raised the topic of predictions that every 20 years, or election years ending in zero, foretold a president’s death in office. He asked President Carter if he had any concerns.
“I’ve seen those predictions. I’m willing to take the chance,” Carter responded.
“The American people have given me an honor that I never dreamed of when I was your age, and I think it would be worth it even if I knew that it would end in some kind of tragedy…I’m not afraid. If I knew it was going to happen, I would go ahead and be president and do the best I could till the last day I could.”
While Carter was ultimately defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan for the title of 40th U.S. president, this setback paved the way for his decades-long global advocacy for democracy, public health and human rights, extending far beyond the borders of the nation he campaigned in.
In 1982, the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, established The Carter Center in collaboration with Emory University, driven by their unwavering dedication to human rights and the alleviation of human suffering.
On Sept. 14, 1992, Carter was invited to speak at the University of Dayton as part of their Distinguished Speakers Series. His presentation was titled, “Social Responsibility: Caring About Moral and Ethical Issues.”
Donations collected at the event went to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing homes for those in need. Through this organization, the Carters led the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project for Habitat for Humanity for more than 30 years, raising awareness of the critical need for affordable housing.
On Dec. 10, 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development,” according to White House archives.
“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something,” Carter said of these efforts. “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
The Carter Center is extending an invitation to the public to share messages of peace and comfort with the Carter family through an online message board. You can submit yours here.