Guest columnist Larry Hott: How I got to know Rosalynn Carter

Bouquets of flowers and a sign in tribute to Rosalynn Carter are seen at The Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, on Monday. The former U.S. first lady died on Nov. 19. She was 96.

Bouquets of flowers and a sign in tribute to Rosalynn Carter are seen at The Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, on Monday. The former U.S. first lady died on Nov. 19. She was 96. AP PHOTO/RON HARRIS

By LARRY HOTT

Published: 11-30-2023 6:32 AM

It was February 2001. I was at my desk in our film studio reviewing every grant proposal I had written for our film “Imagining Robert: My Brother, Madness and Survival,” which was based on the book by Jay Neugenboren.

I met Jay four years earlier while swimming laps at the Y. He often spoke about his younger brother Robert, who had been on locked units of state psychiatric hospitals in New York for 40 years. Jay was trying desperately to get Robert off his poorly staffed and sometimes dangerous ward and into a halfway house.

I went to hear Jay read from the book and I was impressed by the response of the crowd. They were parents, brothers and sisters of people like Robert, and they recognized themselves and their difficulties in Jay and Robert’s story. I was struck by the emotional power in the room; I immediately thought it would make a great film.

By 1999 I had enough footage to produce a sample and that helped us secure our first funding, $10,000 from MassHumanities. More funding would come, but it was not nearly enough to finish the film. So, there I was in the winter of 2001 wondering where the next grant would come from when my late wife and filmmaking partner, Diane Garey, called to me from her office.

“Have you heard of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism? It’s perfect for ‘Imagining Robert.’”

“When’s the deadline?” I asked hopefully. “Tomorrow by 5 p.m.,” was the answer. “What, are you nuts?” was what I was thinking, but what I said was, “Too bad, we’ll never make it.” “It’s only a one-page application and four letters of reference,” she said dismissively. “If you can’t pull that together you don’t deserve the funding.” This was before email was the norm, so I faxed all my trusty references, and they faxed signed references back to me by the end of the day. I FedExed the package to the Carter Center that evening and forgot about it.

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In May of 2001 I got the call. “Congratulations, you’ve been chosen as Rosalynn Carter fellow in mental health journalism.” The fellowship included a $10,000 grant with a catch. I would have to come to the Carter Center in Atlanta to pick up the first half of the award and stay for a three-day conference with the other fellows. The first night included a dinner with Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter in September 2001.

Tuesday, Sept. 11 was a beautiful day to fly to Atlanta. I left Hartford, Connecticut at 8 a.m. A little bit after 9 a.m., the businesswoman in the seat next to me was chatting on the seat phone when she suddenly turned pale and grabbed my arm.

“You’re not going to believe this, but my office just told me that the World Trade Center collapsed. Nobody knows what’s going on.” Then the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker, “Air traffic control has informed us that we have to land in Charlotte.”

In the terminal it was pandemonium. After waiting online to get to a pay phone (cellphones weren’t working) I got through to the Carter Center. They told me that the dinner was on, and that I should rent a car and make the five-hour drive. Easier said than done. There were no cars available, and no one wanted to give me a ride to Atlanta. Then the police closed the airport.

There were no buses at the terminals, only cabs, and the line for them was a mile long. The police were shoving five or more people into every cab. So, in I went with four strangers, all hell-bent on going anyplace else. An older woman next to me took my hand and said she was scared for her husband; they lived only a few blocks from the towers.

We made a pact — we would help each other get out of Charlotte. The driver dropped us all at the train station, but when we entered the clerk just kept shouting, “No trains, no trains.” We called local rental car companies, “No cars, no cars.” We ran back to the street and flagged down another cab and headed for the bus station.

As we arrived, the Greyhound for Atlanta was just pulling out and I missed it. The bus for New York City was leaving in a few minutes and I helped my new friend get her ticket and find the gate. Just as she was boarding the bus, she turned to me. “Did you see that U-Haul franchise we passed on the way here? Try that, who knows?” Then she was gone.

Another cab ride got me to U-Haul and five hours later, emotionally spent and physically exhausted, I pulled into the Carter Center in Atlanta driving an 18-foot truck. Rosalynn Carter came out to greet me, took one look at the truck and said, “I have a bureau at my house that I need help moving. Can you lend me a hand?”

The dinner was moved to the next evening and the conference abbreviated so everyone could get home. There was one hitch; no planes were flying, and no one knew when flights would resume. It’s a good thing I had that truck, which I drove up the East Coast and home.

Fast-forward two years. We received enough funds to finish the film through a collaborative grant with MassHumanities and the Animating Democracy Initiative of Americans for the Arts. Rosalynn Carter graciously offered to host the Atlanta premiere of the film. Jay and Robert came for the event, my mother as well, and we all sat with Rosalynn Carter for the screening and discussion.

When Robert, now off of locked units and living in a halfway house, met Rosalynn Carter, he bowed slightly and kissed her hand.

Larry Hott, of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, lives in Florence.