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Jimmy Carter makes rare public appearance at his wife's memorial

By Jeff Mason and Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Jimmy Carter, the 99-year-old former U.S. president who entered hospice care in February, made a rare public appearance on Tuesday, looking frail as he attended a memorial service in Atlanta for his wife, Rosalynn Carter, who died on Nov. 19.

Using a wheelchair and dressed in a dark suit and tie, he entered the Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church and was helped to the front row near his wife's flowered-covered casket, where he sat flanked by his children.

Folded across his lap was a blue-and-white blanket, embroidered with a smiling portrait of his wife. The couple was married for 77 years.

As first lady, Rosalynn Carter played a prominent role in his presidency from 1977 to 1981, and in his humanitarian work after the couple left the White House. She died at age 96.

Jimmy Carter did not address mourners during the service. His son James Earl "Chip" Carter III kissed him on the forehead after delivering a tribute to Rosalynn Carter, calling her "the glue" that held the family together.

The former president has faced a number of health issues, including cancer, and decided to end medical intervention and enter hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, nine months ago. His wife, who had been diagnosed with dementia, joined him in hospice care only a few days before her death.

The Carters were the longest-married U.S. presidential couple, having wed in 1946 when he was 21 and she was 18.

During the memorial, their daughter, Amy Carter, read from a letter Jimmy Carter sent to Rosalynn while he was serving in the Navy.

"My darling, every time I've ever been away from you, I have been thrilled when I returned to discover just how wonderful you are," he wrote. "When I see you, I fall in love all over again."

The Carters made their last joint public appearance in September when they attended the Plains Peanut Festival in their rural hometown, both dressed in clothes bearing the logo of Habitat for Humanity, the non-profit group focused on providing affordable housing that the couple have long supported.

As late as 2019, when he was 95 years old, he worked for several days a year alongside his wife as a volunteer for Habitat.

"He's coming to the end, and he's very, very physically diminished," Jason Carter, one of the former president's grandsons, told the New York Times shortly before Tuesday's service. "He has been this moral rock for so many people, but she really was that rock for him."

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Rich McKay in Atlanta, and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)