It was one of the most extraordinary experiences in my life, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner
In the news today was a surprising statement that President Joe Biden supposedly let slip. Awhile back, former President Jimmy Carter had asked him to give the eulogy for his funeral. Apparently, this came shortly after Jimmy learned that the cancer had spread into his body and that there was little which the medical profession could do to stop it. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of the American public assumes that it was because both men were Presidents of the United States. However, there is much more to the story. I was there!
In summer, 1971, I was one of Jimmy’s first college interns, while at Georgia Tech. I got to know the Carter family at that time. This phenomenal experience ended with Jimmy’s interns being invited to a retreat at the new lodge at what was then called Unicoi Station State Park. It was near Helen, GA . . . whose new Alpine appearance was about two years old at the time. Throughout the weekend, Jimmy wore blue jeans and a casual shirt.
Our project was to predict what life would be like in the United States and Georgia in the year 2000. With this information, state officials and planners could plan better for the future. The long weekend was divided up into study groups and “fun activities” . . . like sight-seeing around the new alpine village center in Helen. The weekend culminated with a campfire session, where each of us talked about our personal dreams for the future.
By the way, the chosen academic elite of Georgia that year got EVERYTHING wrong. As for myself . . . my life after graduation from Georgia Tech has been radically different that I thought it would be when sitting around that campfire. For that matter, the lives of Jimmy Carter and Hamilton Jordan, who were sitting on the log next to me, soon turned radically different . . . as you will soon read.
Since fall of 1971, I had known that the US Navy did not need me as an active duty Sea Bee officer. I had agreed to a vague agreement that Naval Intelligence would create “opportunities” for me overseas, if I would “run errands” for them. Then in February 1972, I received a telegram from Crown Prince (now King) Karl Gustaf of Sweden inviting me to participate in a technical exchange program.
The Stadsarkitektkontoret, my official employer, occupied this brick building on the harbor. My project was designing a pedestrian village on Ven Island, which was within the jurisdiction of the City of Landskrona.
At first, for obvious reasons, I thought it was a hoax . . . especially since the United States did not have diplomatic relations with Sweden. My affirmative telegram to his secretary was followed by very warm letters from the Mayor and Stadsarkitekt of Landskrona, Sweden . . . welcoming me to their city.
A few weeks before graduation, I called the Governor’s Office to ask for a brochure that explained to foreigners where Georgia was, combined with a little bit of history. A staff member called back to tell me that the Scandinavian countries were major trade partners with Georgia. Georgia shipped vast quantities of frozen chickens, peanuts and kaolin clay there. Indeed, in a few months I was to discover that all of the chickens, peanut butter and canned peaches in Landskrona’s supermarkets came from Georgia!
I was mailed two large trade packages to give to Landskrona officials. They included an autographed photo of Jimmy Carter, plus a personal letter from Jimmy, emphasizing that the attitude of Georgians toward Sweden was quite different than the attitude of President Nixon.
The day after graduation from Tech in June 1972, I flew to Landskrona to start a job there. A few days later, I was invited by a city council member to have dinner with his family then watch the premier of a new TV series on the United States. Of all things, the first program featured Georgia and Jimmy Carter. This city council member didn’t even know that I was from Georgia or where Atlanta was.
The program ended by predicting that Jimmy would someday be President of the United States. Keep in mind that this was in June 1972, when Jimmy was barely known outside of Georgia. On top of that . . . the Rev. Andrew Young had been the Assistant Minister at the Methodist campus church at Georgia Tech.
From that night forward, people in Landskrona assumed that I was a VIP in the United States. In fact, the next day at noontime, Britt Louise Manson came up to me as I was eating lunch at the City Hall Square fountain. She introduced herself as my official Swedish girlfriend and tour guide. She then warned me that there were many Soviet spies in the discos and bars of that region of Scandinavia . . . pretending to be wholesome Swedish girls! As a Viking shield maiden, she would protect me from those dangerous Ruskies!
Britt was an honors law student and President of the college division of the (Pro-NATO) Center Political Party. Well, yes . . . she was also quite pleasing, esthetically. Oh, did I mention that Britt liked to go topless, when we were exploring the Swedish countryside? Now, how I was I supposed to be happy, when I returned to those conservative Gringo gals back home? LOL
Although the Center Party supported close cooperation between Sweden and other western democracies, like almost all Swedes, Britt was opposed to the USA’s presence in Vietnam. By December 1972, most of our combat troops had been pulled out. Because of my “special” situation in Europe, I seldom discussed politics with Britt, but actually agreed with her. I was covertly working with counterparts in the Swedish and Danish Naval Intelligence. I could not tell anyone the real reason that I was in Landskrona for 20 years. Britt was asked to be my friend to protect me from female Soviet spies, but she knew not discuss the matter, because officially Sweden was neutral and the Socialist Prime Minister, Olav Palme despised the United States government. It was rather bold for Swedish TV to broadcast a prime-time program that viewed at least the State of Georgia and Jimmy Carter favorably.
Right after I returned home in December 1972, I called the Governor’s office to tell them that I had watched Jimmy on prime time Swedish television. The hour-long program was quite complimentary of Georgia. They should get a copy of of it.
A secretary called back to invite me to visit the Governor’s Mansion, while the Christmas decorations were up. I was to call to make an appointment, but was almost immediately hired by an AEP firm in Colombia, MD and so spent the next two months being trained and observed up there. I was not working in the Peachtree City office until February.
So . . . almost exactly 50 years ago . . . in late February 1973 . . . I was invited to the Governor’s Mansion Garage Apartment by Chip and Caron (Griffin) Carter to a Saturday afternoon soiree’. I would accompany Caron’s room-mate at Wesleyan College, Anne for the private get-together. I had a crush on Caron, while both of us were governor’s interns, but she chose the governor’s son. Unfortunately, their marriage would not last.
A few minutes after we started chatting, Jimmy walked into the apartment, wearing a red Winston Cup racing jacket and carrying an 18 inch deep stack of rock albums. Miss Rosalynn had thrown him out of the Mansion, because she didn’t want rock music playing while she was having a tea with some highfalutin ladies.
The rock music gave a focus to what had been somewhat awkward conversation. Chip and I were from different worlds. The five of us debated, who the best soul and Southern Rock musicians were as we played their music. Actually, Jimmy began slipping in more and more questions about Sweden, even though Chip, Caron and Anne didn’t seem terribly interested in that subject.
I did learn that Jimmy had no clue that he was being interviewed for an hour long TV program on Georgia, when a Swedish journalist stopped by the Governor’s office. Everyone, including Jimmy, thought I was joking, when I told them that at the end of the program the journalist stated that Jimmy would be president some day.
About an hour into this musical debate, there was a knock on the door. A man, not much older than us, stuck his head through the door and said, “Hey Jimmy! The airplane arrived in Atlanta early. Rosalynn said that it was alright for my nephew and I to come over here. Is that okay?” The stranger stuttered a bit. Who was this guy?
Jimmy said, “Come on in.” The rest of us were rather peeved at these two uninvited intruders . . . until Jimmy announced, “I would like y’all to meet Senator Joe Biden of Delaware . . . the youngest man ever to serve in the United States Senate.” We all jumped up to attention, when those words were uttered.
While Joe and his nephew were in the bathroom, Jimmy told us not to mention anything about Joe’s family. Six weeks earlier, his wife had died in a car crash along with their one-year-old daughter. His sons had been seriously injured. This was Senator Biden’s first trip away from home. His family hoped that it would help the grieving process. Jimmy added that Senator Biden was going to stutter a bit. The childhood speech impediment had come back after this horrific tragedy in his life.
Neilia and Joe Biden with their children, shortly before the horrific car accident.
Senator Biden knew absolutely nothing about rock music. Jimmy and the rest of us tried to help him recover from a deficient education, but it seemed an almost hopeless cause. The new senator was far more interested in Sweden . . . especially the healthcare system . . . the lack of crime and the lack of poverty. Both Biden and Jimmy would try to interject questions about Sweden and Europe, while the other were talking music. I had backpacked throughout Europe, from Nordkap, Norway to Siracusa, Sicily . . . during and after my job in Sweden
I got the feeling that this was the first time that Jimmy and Joe had met . . . but could be wrong. Obviously, though, it was their first extended conversations. Senator Biden was clearly, a decent and compassionate man. He was the type person that we needed in Washington.
Around 4 PM Senator Biden started getting antsy and stuttering more. He suddenly asked Jimmy if they could go somewhere to talk in private. Jimmy told him that the young folks needed to see how people govern . . . “besides Anne and Richard going to be a governor or senator of Georgia some day. I just can’t figure out, which one will be which.” He chuckled.
Joe shifted shifted his posture and with a serious look on his face, announced, “Jimmy, I am here on behalf of the Democratic National Committee to invite you to run for national office.” He didn’t say president, he said “national office.” However, it quickly became clear to us that he meant, “PRESIDENT”.
Later on in the evening, it was time for the two men to talk in private, thus time for Anne and I to leave. As we walked backed to our cars, we both agreed that a young Southern governor didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell of being elected President . . . but it was still quite an honor for leaders in other parts of the nation to invite Jimmy into the political fray. Just as in the case of the retreat at Unicoi Station . . . we were totally wrong.
Yes, it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life . . . a Saturday afternoon and evening spent with two future presidents.
Now you know!
Jimmy and Rosalynn . . . we will always love you!