ATLANTA – The white cushioned chair assigned to Jimmy Carter at Emory University sat empty Wednesday night.
The former president preferred to stand, though he opened his 34th town hall with students at the Atlanta university with a discussion of the treatment he's receiving for cancer that had spread to his brain. Carter is a distinguished professor at the university, and The Carter Center is an affiliate of the school.
The once-routine event, like others that Carter is maintaining between doses of immune-boosting drugs, has taken on new significance since the former president revealed that he is being treated for cancer. But Carter is still himself, calling the chair "a position of illness and infirmity and age."
The crowd roared as he walked instead to a waiting podium.
Carter briefly recapped his diagnosis with melanoma and the treatment he has received, stumbling over the drug's chemical name pembrolizumab.
"I'm in good spirits," Carter said. "I'm prepared for anything that comes. My wife is a little less prepared than I've been, but she's getting on fine."
Students seated on gym bleachers inside Emory's physical education center chatted, worked on homework and wrote questions while waiting for the nearly 91-year-old Carter. As usual, students' questions sought Carter's solutions to global conflicts, advice about college and insight about family.
Freshmen at Emory are strongly urged to attend Carter's town hall, but his cancer diagnosis made some students wonder whether the event would be held, said Riley Gulbronson, an 18-year-old bio-engineering major from Kaukauna, Wisconsin.
Gulbronson sat with freshmen classmates Amy Matthews and Eunice Lee in the front row. The three recalled the low points of Carter's presidency: the hostage crisis in Iran and problems with energy and the economy that are seen as having contributed to his failed bid for a second term. But they also knew about his humanitarian work since and his Sunday school classes.
The three wrote questions asking Carter what he liked most about being president and living in Atlanta, then added one more: Can we get a selfie with you?
"It's cool to see a piece of living history," Matthews said. "That doesn't happen every day."
Following the Q&A, Carter received Emory's "President's Medal," recognition given 10 times since its creation in 1995. Other recipients include the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, Rosa Parks and Congressman John Lewis. To the students' delight, a masked skeleton figure called Dooley that acts as an unofficial mascot greeted Carter. A student speaking for the silent caped figure thanked Carter for answering every Emory student's question for 34 years.
Carter's briefest response of the night came when asked whether he had any thoughts about the Republican presidential primary debate happening simultaneously.
"No," he said, sparking loud laughter in the gym.