Every U.S. president back to Harry S. Truman had at least one brother, but Billy Carter was certainly the most colorful.
Every United States president back to Harry S. Truman had at least one brother – Eisenhower had six! But Billy Carter, the only brother of President Jimmy Carter of Plains, Georgia, was certainly the most colorful and possibly the most controversial. William Alton “Billy” Carter III died 25 years ago today at age 51, leaving a legacy of being a bit of a bumpkin and a Southern redneck beer drinker. He was widely quoted as saying, “Yes, sir. I’m a real Southern boy. I got a red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.” He died in the Carters’ hometown almost a year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the same disease that killed President Carter’s other two siblings and both parents.
Another part of Billy Carter’s legacy would have to be the service station in Plains he opened in 1972 that became a tourist destination during his older brother’s 1976 presidential campaign. At its peak the service station/hub/hangout sold 2,000 cases of beer each month along with more than 40,000 gallons of gas. In 2009, with help from the University of Georgia, the station became the Billy Carter Service Station Museum, filled with Billy’s personal memorabilia and all things related to Billy Beer.
A long-time Pabst Blue Ribbon drinker himself – sometimes even popping one for breakfast – Billy agreed to support Billy Beer, dreamed up in 1977 by Falls City Brewing Company in Louisville to cash in on Billy’s newfound fame. Several other breweries pitched in to meet demand during the brew’s short-lived fad; it was discontinued in 1978.
Billy Carter, brother of President Jimmy Carter, stands among teammates during a softball game in Naples, Florida, April 25, 1977. Carter made an appearance at the charity, fund-raising weekend for a fee of $10,000, and played softball with teammates who paid $100 each to participate in the game. (AP Photo)
A shopkeeper selling ‘Billy Carter Beer’ c. 1977. Billy Carter, the brother of American President Jimmy Carter, is a noted beer drinker and has named a beer for himself. (Photo by Peter Keegan / Keystone / Getty Images)
In this Jan. 18, 1977, file photo, Billy Carter, younger brother of President elect Jimmy Carter, spends most of the day on the phone telling friends that he doesn’t have any more tickets to any of the balls to be held in Washington. The giant plastic peanut is one of many gifts he has received from friends through the country. (AP Photo)
Billy Carter attended Emory University, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked in his family’s prosperous peanut business. He married a hometown girl, Sybil Spires, and raised a family of six children. One of them, William “Buddy” Carter, wrote a book about his dad, Billy Carter: A Journey Through the Shadows, which includes an account of his dad’s unsuccessful run for mayor of Plains in 1976.
Buddy Carter wrote that his dad was three different people: “One was the guy we saw at home, the one who provided for us and disciplined us. The man who read four newspapers a day and seven or eight novels a week and who could discuss any topic from how much rain was needed to make a crop to global politics. Another was the man who worked hard every day in the family business, putting 100 percent of his attention to task. The third was the man the press paid attention to.”
Billy Carter was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service and, in a 1980 episode dubbed “Billygate,” appeared before a Senate committee questioning his ties and potential influence peddling to Libya, which had loaned him more than $200,000. In a statement before the Senate panel, Billy Carter said he was not ”a buffoon, a boob or a wacko.”
Perhaps his most widely quoted quip came during his brother’s campaign in 1976, when he told reporters, “My mother went into the Peace Corps when she was 68. My one sister is a motorcycle freak, my other sister is a Holy Roller evangelist and my brother is running for president. I’m the only sane one in the family.”
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called “Living with Grief.”