The appearance of the probable Democratic presidential candidate brought 22 fellow graduates to a motel banquet room in Americus, Ga., a town 10 miles from Plains.
There were 26 members in the original class, 14 girls and 12 boys, but three have died and one could not make it back for the reunion.
The class gets together every five years (the last time was in the Georgia Governor's Mansion when Jimmy Carter lived there, and, as before, they reminisced, comparing wives, children and careers, seemingly oblivious to the curious big-city reporters. "Everywhere I've gone around the country," Carter told them, "I have thought about how much all of you mean to me." Billy Wise, who grew up on the farm next to Carter's, spoke for many of his classmates, "You just don't think of anybody in your class being exceptional, really."
Virginia Williams, whose husband runs a rival peanut business across the street from Carter's, remembered young Jimmy's addiction to reading. "I used to get so mad," she said. "He would be reading something that didn't have anything to do with what the class was doing, and when the teacher would call on him he'd say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't hear the question.' Then, when she repeated it, he would always answer." Carter, who ranked third in grades, was glib enough even then to win a spot on the debating team ("We always beat the girls," claimed a teammate). At the banquet, Jimmy was presented with a little gavel as the graduate who had made the most speeches. (Other awards were for the least hair, the most wrinkles and the most children.)
Most of the Class of '41 still lives in Georgia, but Richard Johnson, a tour company employee, and his wife came all the way from California bearing a red, white and blue afghan. Giving it to Carter, Johnson apologized for the rumpled condition of the package. "The Secret Service had to inspect it," he explained. "If I'm elected," responded Carter, gallantly, "it will be in the White House."
Following the tradition that obliges each graduate to describe his life, Carter introduced himself and his wife Rosalynn. "She's from Plains," he said. "We have three sons and an 8-year-old daughter, Amy. I am semiretired. My family is in the lemonade business [a reference to Amy's soft drink stand]. I have one grandson, Jason, born in August. He can already walk and say 14 words. He's the finest grandchild ever born in Georgia."
Carter listened attentively as his classmates reported, and when Mrs. Evelyn Hudson said she was secretary to a Superior Court Judge, he drew a pretty good laugh when he asked, "Can you type?"
He invited his classmates to join him at service next morning at the Plains Baptist Church, and many of them did. "I could not possibly feel closer to you," Carter said. "I want you always to feel close to me." The graduates seemed pleased by such words, and one suggested a site for their next reunion. "We might," said Thomas Lowery of Lakeland, Fla., "have to drive to Washington."
The Plains, Ga. high school class of 1941 might have held its 35th reunion in total obscurity except for one thing: James Earl Carter Jr. was one of them.