The first time Jimmy Carter came here

First Posted: 1/20/2013

Jimmy Carter may not have won the presidential election of 1980 but he won the affection of about 2500 people jammed into the gym at Pittston Area High School where he held a Town Meeting on Oct. 15 as part of his re-election campaign.

I was 30 years old and already a 13-year newspaper veteran when the president came to town but I attended the event as a citizen not a reporter. I was assigned to interview some of the people waiting in line – they arrived as early as 10 a.m. for the scheduled 5 p.m. talk – but once inside, I just found a seat and got caught up in the excitement. No matter what your politics, it’s really something to be in the same room with the president.

I was so close to him I recall thinking that if I had a drinking straw I could blow the paper wrapper in his direction and almost hit him. Yeah, and get promptly escorted out of here by the Secret Service, was my next thought.

Memories of President Carter’s visit came flooding back when I heard he will be speaking at the Wyoming Monument in May. He’ll be the third president to do so. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first and Teddy Roosevelt the second.

The thing I remember most about Carter’s visit in 1980 was his warmth and his sincerity. He answered questions directly and without hesitation, except for one, which I’ll get to in a minute.

When Ed Farrell of West Wyoming asked him about a tax cut – something Carter’s Republican opponents, Cong. Jack Kemp, Sen. William Roth and the man who would become the next president, Ronald Reagan, proposed – Carter said, in essence, not to expect one. He said it would be highly inflationary in nature and lead to massive federal deficits and the elimination of a major part of the federal government programs to serve people.

Can’t get much more honest than that.

When Ann Marie Murphy, of Pittston Township, got up to ask a question, she first invited the president to come back some day and go on a fishing trip with her and her family. Then came her question: A woman with money has the choice to end a pregnancy, however, a woman on welfare has no freedom to decide. What will you do to help all women have freedom of choice?

Ann, Carter responded, I hope you don’t withdraw your invitation to go fishing. Ann, I am not in favor of abortion.

His answer drew a long, loud round of applause.

I have taken a firm position, he continued when things were quiet again, against the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. It doesn’t seem right to me for the federal government to collect taxes from those who have deep religious feelings against abortion and use that same money to finance abortions.

Afterwards, as reported in the Sunday Dispatch, Lucy Singer, who was in attendance, said Carter showed a lot of guts with that answer.

The only time the president hesitated was when one member of the audience asked a question that caught him completely off guard. Would you invite me and my family to The White House? Vincent Peperno, of Old Forge, asked.

Carter flashed that famous broad smile but said nothing for a moment. Then he slipped out of his suit coat, folded it in half and placed it on the floor of the temporary stage. He’s buying himself some time, I thought. Next, he carefully rolled up each sleeve of his bright white shirt. Finally, he spoke.

Does anyone here know Mr. Peperno? Carter asked. Some hands went up.

Would you invite Mr. Peperno and his family to your house? he asked one of them, who responded affirmatively.

Then I’ll invite him to mine, the president said.

Saturday afternoon, Marion Peperno confirmed that the president made good on his offer. That very day her husband was given a direct phone number to call to make arrangements. She and her husband, now 80, who taught history in the Western Wayne school district for 42 years, and four children visited The White House on Dec. 17 of 1980, and spent time with Carter in the Oval Office.

At Pittston Area, Carter had talked about his belief that coal was a key to America’s future. I want to see OPEC oil replaced in the world market with Pennsylvania coal, he said. So the Pepernos brought him a gift of anthracite coal cuff links.

Gracious is the word Marion Peperno uses to describe President Carter that day. He is a wonderful, wonderful man, she says as she recalls her family’s visit with the president all these years later.

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