Billy Carter Is Dead of Cancer at 51 : Ex-President’s Brother Capitalized on Country-Boy Image

Times Staff Writer

Billy Carter--the Georgia businessman and “good ol’ boy” who became a national folk hero as President Jimmy Carter’s irreverent, wisecracking, beer-guzzling brother--died Sunday of pancreatic cancer. He was 51.

Carter’s homespun wit and buffoonish antics instantly made him a star during his brother’s presidential campaign in 1976 and, long after, kept him in demand for product endorsements and appearances at state fairs, peanut Olympics, swamp-buggy races and belly-flop contests.

Although his popularity eventually waned--especially after his widely publicized treatment for alcoholism and revelations of his dealings as an agent for the Libyan government--he remains perhaps the best-known “first brother” in U.S. history.


William Alton Carter, the fourth and youngest child of James Earl and Lillian Carter, “died quietly and peacefully in his sleep about 7 a.m. with his family at his bedside,” the family said in a statement from the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta. “He had struggled courageously with his illness, never losing his sense of humor and always concerned more about those who loved him than himself.”

Funeral in Plains

A spokesman for the family said he died at home in Plains, Ga., where funeral services were scheduled for 4 p.m. today at Lebanon Cemetery.

His illness was first diagnosed as inoperable cancer Sept. 11, 1987, at Emory University in Atlanta. His sister, Jean Carter Stapleton, an evangelist and faith healer, died of pancreatic cancer in 1983 at age 54. Their mother died of pancreatic, bone and breast cancer in the same year, at age 85. Their father died of cancer in 1953, at age 58.

Billy Carter is survived by his wife, Sybil, and their six children: Kim, Jana Kae, William Alton IV (Buddy), Marle, Mandy and Earl.

Carter, a short, stocky man with reddish hair and a wide-angle grin like his brother’s, invariably was sought out by reporters looking for an offbeat slant or a funny line during the 1976 presidential race.

His most-often quoted remark of the campaign: “I’ve got a mother who joined the Peace Corps and went to India when she was 68. I’ve got a sister who races motorcycles and another sister who’s a Holy Roller preacher. I’ve got a brother who says he wants to be President of the United States. I’m the only sane one in the family.”


Shrewd Business Sense

Behind the image of a loose-talking, beer-swilling, chain-smoking rube, however, was a shrewd, hard-working businessman.

He took over as managing partner of the Carter family’s peanut business in 1970, after Jimmy Carter was elected governor of Georgia. By 1976, Billy had turned the business into a $5-million-a-year operation.

“I made more money for the business than Jimmy ever did,” Carter, who owned 15% of the operation, was fond of boasting.

He put in long hours at the Carter peanut warehouse in Plains, unlocking the doors at 6 a.m. each day, but at closing time he would head across the street to the Amoco service station he owned, where he would chug beer and chew the fat in the back room with his drinking buddies.

“I’m a real Southern boy,” he used to say. “I got a red neck, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.”

Concern for Hometown

After the presidential election he grew disturbed over the changes in Plains as hordes of reporters, tourists and souvenir hunters descended on the tiny town in rural southwestern Georgia. Plains, he lamented, is “going straight to hell.”


He soon moved with his family to a secluded home in Buena Vista, about 20 miles away.

During the same period, he became embittered at maneuvering over the family’s peanut warehouse. When his brother moved into the White House, the business was placed in a blind trust managed by Charles Kirbo, an Atlanta attorney and confidant of Jimmy Carter. Billy offered to buy his brother’s 60% share of the business, but Kirbo turned him down, reportedly with Jimmy’s concurrence.

Billy abruptly resigned from the business and went on the celebrity circuit full time, pulling down $5,000 for each appearance and earning a reported $500,000 in his first year on the road.

Perhaps his most famous effort at self-promotion was the introduction in October, 1977, of the short-lived “Billy Beer” brewed by the Fall River Brewing Co. of Louisville, Ky.

Pop-Top Fashion Plate

As part of the promotional campaign, Carter was photographed in an unforgettable costume that featured a dunce cap and a short vest made of Billy Beer pop tops.

At length, however, Carter began to feel uncomfortable with the redneck image. As he said in a television interview then: “I think I may have created a monster with my--I won’t say act--but with my redneck pose.”

He was increasingly beset with notoriety and the personal problems brought on by excessive drinking. At one point, his brother was compelled to say publicly: “I hope the people of the United States will realize that I have no control over Billy.”


In a 1987 book by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Sybil Carter is quoted as saying that life in those days was “hell, literally hell” and “a lot of times I wished he were dead.”

In the summer of 1980, he entered the Long Beach Naval Hospital for treatment of his alcoholism.

By this time, he also had become a political embarrassment to his brother because of his dealings with the Libyan government, a regime with a history of terrorism and hostility toward the United States.

Became Agent of Libya

After a trip to the North African Arab country at the Libyan government’s expense in late 1978, Billy acted as an agent for Libya in the United States. Among other things, he entertained visiting Libyan businessmen and attempted to strike a deal with the Libyan government to obtain additional crude oil allocations for a U.S. company.

It was not until mid-1980 that Billy Carter registered with the U.S. government as a foreign agent and acknowledged having received $220,000 from the Libyan government.

Both the Justice Department and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigated his activities, seeking to determine if there had been official corruption or unethical conduct in his relationship with Libya.


He eventually was cleared, but the adverse publicity contributed to his brother’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election.

With his brother out of the White House and his own star fallen, Billy returned to a less flamboyant life.

Entered Housing Business

Between 1980 and 1985, he worked for various housing manufacturers and then went into business for himself, selling mobile homes.

In 1986, he became sales manager for a large Georgia-based mobile home maker and moved back to Plains, where he bought a large, brick ranch house near his brother’s home there.

In his 1978 account of the Carter family, Hugh Carter, a cousin, attributes much of Billy’s iconoclastic behavior to the “little bitterness” that made him want to be completely different from the rest of the family.

“Everyone was working so hard at being an overachiever that it made Billy want to show he was the opposite,” he said.


Billy’s sister Ruth noted in her 1978 biography, “Brother Billy,” that Billy also harbored a deep resentment over Jimmy’s leaving the Navy and taking over the family business after the death of their father in 1953, when Billy was 16.

Their father, who had nick named Billy “Buckshot” and doted on him as a child, had once told him: “Someday, you’ll be in charge of things when you grow up. Jimmy has chosen the Navy and you’ve chosen the land.”

And then, Ruth wrote: “Instead of Daddy, there was Jimmy, all friendly and brotherly, all business. Billy tried to stay away from the warehouse but he felt lost without it. He wanted to run it.”