When Carol Swarbrick Dries decided to collaborate with playwright Richard Broadhurst on a one-woman show, she expected it to be a lot of fun.
Everything else has just been a bonus, she said, including corresponding with Jimmy Carter, traveling to Plains, Ga., to meet the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, and visiting the “pond house” where his mother Lillian Carter lived out the final years of her life.
Dries approached Broadhurst — a professional actor and writer — about developing a script specifically for her last year. After he agreed, a number of historical women were considered for the project but it was Lillian Carter who stood out in Dries’ mind.
“She’s just a great character who spoke her mind,” Dries said. “This is an amazing woman who most people just don’t know enough about.”
Lillian Gordy met businessman James Earl Carter and married him immediately after she earned her degree in nursing in 1923. The couple had four children, former President Jimmy Carter being the eldest.
Lillian Carter was active in civil rights and was considered a forerunner in the South, accepting African Americans as equals. She’s well known for her contribution to nursing in her home state of Georgia, for serving as a Peace Corps volunteer — she joined at the age of 68 — and for writing two books during the Carter presidency.
Though her family initially disapproved of her career in nursing, Lillian Carter continued her training without their approval and became very successful, earning the respect of both the black and white communities. “Miss Lillian,” as she often was called, ushered black visitors into her home through the front door, not the back, and would chat casually in her living room with neighbors both black and white.
This attitude was uncommon at the time.Working as a nurse, Lillian Carter went into labor while on duty; thus Jimmy Carter became the first president to be born in a hospital.
During their trip early in October, the Drieses learned things about Lillian Carter from friends and family that can’t be found in most books.
“She was passionate about the Dodgers and after she died they found a complete uniform in her closet,” Carol Swarbrick Dries said. “Secretly, she loved wrestling and swore it was real. She also enjoyed gambling and playing poker. And she cursed.”
Upon returning, Dries said she intends to meet with Broadhurst and revise the script a bit.
“There was just so much to see and so many people to talk to, it has added a whole new dimension,” she said. “I feel more prepared to add a question-and-answer session after the show about Plains and Miss Lillian now, too.”
Jim Dries, a longtime fan of President Jimmy Carter, said he’s thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Lillian Carter and has grown to love her for who she was, not just because she was the mother of the president.
“We have a more full understanding of who she was and the life she lived,” he said. “And it just goes to show that if you do the right thing, who knows what your children will aspire to.”
“She wasn’t a prude and she didn’t preach,” Dries continued admiringly. “She just stood for what was right and wasn’t deterred.”
When they first arrived in Plains, Ga., the Drieses weren’t entirely sure if they were going to meet and talk to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter or if they simply were getting a photograph with them after a Sunday school session. There had been some mixed messages between the Drieses, the Carters and Jimmy Carter’s secretary that created uncertainty. Either way, the Drieses were excited to be visiting Plains, a small town of less than 650 people and hometown of the 39th president.
While dropping off some information at the Carter Center, the Drieses were informed that the former president “might” be at a concert in Americus, a small town just 10 miles away, the next evening in celebration of his birthday. So, the next day they decided to attend the concert after visiting the presidential library. Almost automatically, they assumed Jimmy Carter wouldn’t be attending because there was no security at the door.
Much to their surprise, only moments later Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter walked through the door!
After singing “Happy Birthday” with the group, Carol Swarbrick Dries approached Rosalynn Carter to introduce herself. Before she could even say her own name, Rosalynn said, “You must be Carol! I’m going to show you the pond house tomorrow.”
On the spot — and against standard regulations — Jimmy Carter signed two children’s books for the Drieses’ grandchildren and a third book for Jim Dries.
The Carters parted with a friendly goodbye and a promise to see them the next morning at church, Carol Swarbrick Dries recalled.
Despite the initial confusion, the Drieses ended up meeting the Carters at the party, getting their photo taken with the couple the next day at church and visiting in-depth with Rosalynn Carter at the pond house. Jimmy Carter had to fly to Europe on official fundraising business and was unable to join them.
Last March, Carol Swarbrick Dries performed the one-woman show “Lilly” twice on the peninsula as a Reader’s Theatre Plus fundraiser. Now she’s in discussion with a Seattle producer and director to take the project to the next level.
She’s also mulling over the idea of organizing a fundraiser for the Plains Better Hometown Program in Georgia where she would perform the show several times over one week.
In the meantime, the Drieses admit to being inspired by the entire Carter family.
“They show you that no matter how big you are or how many contacts you have that you still have to get your hands dirty and help your community,” Jim Dries said. “They never forgot their roots.”
Taking on Lillian Carter’s “age is no barrier” attitude and mimicking her commitment to helping people in need, the Drieses are planning to volunteer with Habitat For Humanity on an international project in the near future.