Jackie Coffin

BILLINGS (KPAX) - The nation has been sending prayers and best wishes to former President Jimmy Carter, America's longest-living president who, at the age of 98, entered hospice this weekend.

Carter inspired many different people in different ways, including Pastor Doug Garner of Central Christian Church in Billings, who knows the former president directly.

"He was so humble and down-to-Earth it was just like, this is a guy who I would go out and have a beer with," Garner said.

Garner first met Carter in 1983, when Garner was a first-year seminary student at Emory University in Atlanta.

At the beginning of the course, Garner's professor explained he had an assistant teacher and guest lecturer, who turned out to be the former president.

"It was a surprise that he was going to be there, I suppose they wanted to keep that quiet," Garner said.

For 13 weeks, Carter led weekly discussions on ethics and religion.

"He'd come in, lecture, and hold open discussions about ministerial ethics and how you put that into practice in the real world," Garner said. "It was amazing."

Little did Garner know, his path would cross Carter's several more times — first during a blitz build with Habitat for Humanity in eastern Kentucky.

"He was always the first one on the site. He was always the last one to leave."

Then yet again, in Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia, right as Garner was to get ordained.

"I told him how I knew him, in one of the classes with Jim Hopewell and he goes, 'oh yeah, you're that student from Idaho," Garner said. "It's not often that I am speechless, but I was speechless."

Garner remembers Carter as humble, down-to-Earth, intelligent, and faithful and says the lessons he's learned from the former president are something that shaped his perspective as a pastor and community member, and he shares those tenants often.

"In my mind, he's the greatest living American. He handled it all with great grace, that's what I always admired about him. I hope to do the same."