AP NEWS
Related topics

Billy Carter Dies At 51; Funeral Monday

September 25, 1988

PLAINS, Ga. (AP) _ Billy Carter, the former ″first brother″ and beer-drinking good ol’ boy whose candor and business ventures amused and sometimes embarrassed the Carter administration, died Sunday of cancer. He was 51.

The brother of former President Jimmy Carter suffered for a year with pancreatic cancer - the disease that killed his father and a sister - and lived longer than his doctors expected. He died three days after leaving the hospital for his home in this southwest Georgia hamlet.

Carter ″died quietly and peacefully in his sleep ... with his family at his bedside,″ according to a statement issued by the Carter Presidential Center on behalf of the former president and his family.

″He had struggled courageously with his illness, never losing his sense of humor and always more concerned about those who loved him than about himself,″ the family said.

Billy Carter, who once defined himself as a beer-drinking good ol’ boy, was forced into the spotlight when his older brother rocketed from their tiny hometown into the White House.

He put his name on a brand of beer that flopped, got into hot water with remarks denounced as racist or anti-Semitic, accepted money from Libya and was forced to sell some properties to pay a debt to the Internal Revenue Service.

But underneath the mask of the court jester was a perceptive man, an avid reader, a fighter who refused to go down quietly under the pressures of alcoholism or cancer.

Last April, Carter acknowledged he enjoyed being a part of the national scene during his brother’s presidency from 1977 to 1981.

″I’ve been asked, a thousand times, I guess, what I would do if I had it to do over again,″ he added. ″And I said, ‘Probably the same thing,’ because if I had to do it over again I’d probably screw up worse the second go- round.″

He was born William Alton Carter III, the youngest of four children. He was a child with a stutter who did badly in school while his siblings shone.

Billy was 16 when his father died in 1953 and Jimmy, a Navy officer 13 years his senior, moved back home to Plains to take over the family’s peanut business. Billy chafed under his brother’s stewardship and soon married his high school sweetheart, Sybil, and joined the Marines.

Carter later drove a truck for the family warehouse, then spent two years at Emory University in Atlanta before he was forced out because of poor grades and for turning in a term paper written by someone else.

He returned to Plains in 1964, where he gradually assumed control of the peanut business, which grew into a $5 million a year operation under his stewardship. The business was placed in trust while his brother was president.

″It changed my lifestyle completely,″ he said later. ″I was 40 years old and went from one extreme to the other just overnight.″

During his brother’s presidency, he made no effort to smooth out his image. He cultivated a redneck personality and was known for a quick and often profane wit.

At a Canadian bellyflop championship, he jumped into the pool with a beer in his hand and a rose between his teeth. He judged a pizza distributor’s beauty contest. He put his signature on the label of ″Billy″ beer, but later joked that one reasonshe gave up drinking was that the beer was so bad.

″I don’t know how to describe the appeal, but I think people can’t believe a president’s brother can be like I am,″ he told Penthouse magazine.

Finally, his remarks went too far. When a black California politician named Carter Gilmore joked that they might be related, Billy responded, ″I hate to say this, but we’ve all left a nigger in the woodpile somewhere.″ At a dinner honoring Atlanta Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, Billy called him a ″bastardized Jew″ and ″a Polack.″

Jimmy Carter stood gamely by his brother, refusing to muzzle him, joking about Billy’s contributions to the beer industry and assuring reporters that Billy was a competent, capable man.

But the brothers were forced to put some distance between them in 1979, after Billy Carter visited Libya and served as host for a return visit by Libyan officials, calling the Libyans ″the best friends I’ve got in the world right now.″ He also disclosed that he had accepted $220,000 from the Libyans to help pay bills and various expenses.

In all, the Carter presidency and the years immediately after were tough on the president’s brother.

In 1979, a federal grand jury investigated whether loans to the family peanut warehouse were diverted to the presidential campaign, allegations Carter denied. He spent seven weeks in an alcohol rehabilitation program that year.

In 1981, to help pay a $105,000 debt to the IRS, he sold his Plains home and the little gas station where he used to hold court for reporters. He moved to Alabama, worked as a mobile home salesman, and returned to Plains in 1986.

In September 1987, doctors told him he had inoperable cancer of the pancreas, which had killed his father, James Earl Carter, in 1953 and his sister, Ruth Carter Stapleton, an evangelist, in 1983.

He underwent an experimental program at Emory University Hospital, and in May checked into the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., for what he said might be his ″last chance - the only one left. Except prayer, and I’m trying that too.″

One of Carter’s last public appearances came in July when he attended the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta.

A funeral service will be held Monday in Plains, where his mother, ″Miss Lillian″ Carter, and his father are buried.

In addition to his wife and brother, Carter is survived by six children, ages 11 to 31, and sister Gloria Carter Spann.

AP RADIO
Update hourly