Jimmy Carter: The president who lived in Lock Haven
I have this Christmas card on my desk. It’s been there for a couple of years now. It has a photo of a nice older couple, wishing me a nice holiday, and it’s personally signed.
The couple is former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, and Carter is the one who signed it.
I’ve received a couple of similar cards from him over the years. The question would be why. And the answer, I suspect, is because I’m the historian in his favorite place in the world.
James Earl Carter Jr. was born Oct. 1, 1924 in Plains, Ga. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1945, serving in the Navy until the death of his father, at which point he returned to Georgia to run the family’s peanut-growing business. Carter was elected as the governor of Georgia in 1970, and then went on to become the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1980.
After losing his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan, Carter stayed active, working as a diplomat and activist. Presently, he works with Habitat for Humanity, a program that builds or repairs homes in impoverished areas worldwide. Carter has personally assisted in creating or improving over four thousand homes while working with the program.
Before any of this, however, Carter visited Lock Haven, a trip he later detailed in his memoir, “Living Faith,” published in 1996. The book mentions how fond Carter has always been of Lock Haven, and how much he loved his time in the community.
In 1968, Jimmy Carter was serving as a Southern Baptist missionary, and he came to Pennsylvania with a partner. Their goal was to establish a Southern Baptist Church in Lock Haven, the result of an informal telephone poll that strongly suggested that such a church was needed.
They arrived in May. In 1968, the local YMCA at 147 East Water Street was only a couple of years old, and Robert D. Larson of Jersey Shore was the acting executive director. Carter and his partner booked a room there and temporarily moved in, paying the sum of three dollars per night. This was their home and the headquarters of their operation as they traveled Lock Haven in search of converts and donations to their proposed church.
They met with varying degrees of success. One woman donated a dollar, which was a bigger donation in 1968, though still not enough to fund an entire church. One woman lectured Carter in her home, telling him that her religious beliefs were perfect exactly as they were before throwing him out of the house. Others were more open, and willing to listen or donate. In the end, Carter and his partner gathered about forty people who were interested in joining the newly proposed church.
This caused some friction with a few of the local pastors, who accused Carter of attempting to steal their own flocks. Carter and his people were forced to explain that their plan was to begin a new church with all-new recruits, instead of stealing from existing churches. This didn’t exactly persuade the local religious community, many of whom remained unenthusiastic about the project.
In the book, Carter recounts an incident in which he asked a local Salvation Army worker for directions to a specific address. After giving the directions, the worker asked dubiously if Carter was certain he wanted to go there. Without asking for further clarification, Carter said he was certain.
Evidently nobody had warned Carter that Lock Haven was once known for its brothels. That was what he found when he arrived at the address provided. He spoke to a young prostitute for over two hours, attempting to convert her to his new church. Though he was unsuccessful, he did get her to agree to call her estranged parents and talk.
Carter and his partner ended up collecting enough money to rent a building, and enough interested people to begin. He describes the building as “an abandoned building near the end of the runway of Piper Aircraft Company.” In actuality, this is 215 Grant Street, a small stone building. It still stands, though the congregation itself no longer exists; after a few years, the church went out of business and disbanded.
After leaving Lock Haven, Carter always maintained a fondness for the place. In the book “Another Peek At The Past,” Rebecca Gross tells the story of James Bacon, a Hollywood writer and actor, encountered Carter in 1978. Bacon was also from Lock Haven, and grew up on Sixth Street. Many members of his family worked for the Express.
It happened at a birthday party for Bob Hope, who was turning seventy-five. Carter was giving Hope a celebration at the White House, and Bacon had been invited. He waited in the receiving line just ahead of Bob Hope, and as he approached Carter, he introduced himself and said that he was from Lock Haven.
“Lock Haven! It’s one of my favorite towns in the world!” Carter is quoted as saying. “You wouldn’t try to fool the president with that corny Lock Haven gag, would you?”
Judging by the Christmas cards I occasionally receive, Jimmy Carter still feels that way. I’ve written about him before, and I hope that he’s seen some of my work — A guy from one of his favorite places, writing about him with admiration. Jimmy Carter is a good man who served as a good president. And afterward, he continued to do good things, which shows the character of the man.
Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at email@example.com or 570-660-4463.