First Person by Dr. Duke Richey ’86
Dr. Richey is the Howard H. Baker Jr. Chair of American History. First Person in the McCallie Magazine allows a teacher, administrator or student to present a unique perspective on life at McCallie.
In March, I took five students to see former President Jimmy Carter teach Sunday School in Plains, Ga. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had as teacher. The President’s take on the Prodigal Son story in Luke served as an illuminating primary document for my students and me. At the end of the day, which included a trip to his boyhood farm, we better appreciated how Carter’s faith and his family story shaped his life and his legacy.
Before his Bible class began, Carter shared what he had been working on with the Carter Center the past year; mainly eradicating eye disease in Latin America and Africa. He also, of course, is still heavily involved with fair elections and said he would leave later that week to oversee an election in Nepal. Carter may be the most active 88-year-old man in America.
As he began the lesson, Carter asked the audience of about 200 in the Maranatha Baptist Church sanctuary if anyone could think of another great character from the Bible who went on a journey. He said that he wanted a redemption story. McCallie junior Jameson Barnes raised his hand and said, “How about Joseph?” Jameson and Carter then had a brief one-on-one conversation, whereby Carter asked him about Joseph, and Jameson responded with detail. Carter was noticeably impressed. Jameson’s moment on stage was remarkable considering he was in front of a room full of strangers (including a McCallie alumnus of the Class of ’64), numerous cameras, and that he was having a discussion with the 39th President of the United States.
The most interesting moment in the lesson for me came when Carter made a connection between his own family and the attitudes of the two sons and the father in the story. The older son in the story was the good son, Carter said, the younger son the profligate. I thought of how Carter’s own life reversed the order of that story in that he had been the one to leave Plains. He was the older successful son who had left to attend the Naval Academy, worked on a nuclear submarine, then returned home to run the family farm after his father’s death. At the time, Carter’s younger brother Billy was just 16, but still envious that his brother would manage the business he had expected to control. Billy became, over time, a beer-swilling, gas-station-owning, Libya-dealing thorn-in-the-side for President Carter. In his memoirs, Carter would write that Billy was the only member of his family to suffer because of his presidency.
Although Carter never mentioned Billy specifically in the lesson, he made it clear that he had struggled mightily in his own life as both a son and a brother. He felt guilt, he said, that his own ambitions had possibly contributed to Billy’s embarrassments and demise. This presented an intensely personal moment in our encounter with Jimmy Carter, and for me, it offered a proud moment as an American and as a historian. To have the chance to feel close to a President in this setting, to see him bare his soul a little bit, was a unique experience. To share this moment with my students was invaluable.