To the left of the stainless-steel elevator in Eau Claire’s Christ Church Cathedral hangs a plaque which reads: “The Frank and Miriam Carr Carriage.” I push the button and the elevator’s doors pull wide. Then, upon stepping inside, I begin my slow ascent to the church’s second floor.
I have no reason for being here except to experience the fruits of Miriam Carr’s last labor. Miriam was born in Eau Claire on May 15, 1923. Then, exactly 94 years to the day later, she died here as well. In the time between she graduated from Wellesley College with a chemistry degree, worked for the National Bureau of Standards in coordination with the Manhattan Project, married Captain Frank Carr, raised five children, graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a second degree in environmental public health, served as a sanitarian for the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, and, in her spare time, volunteered for a host of organizations — from the Girl Scouts, to Feed My People, to her final role as the most steadfast member of Christ Church Cathedral’s Elevator Committee.
She was my neighbor, too, and her many walks around the block of our Putnam Heights homes afforded us the chance to transition our chitchat into more meaningful conversations. When we got around to her 1944-45 work with the Manhattan Project, I mustered the courage to ask her to speak to my college students as well. We were reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima — a nonfiction book detailing the accounts of six survivors of the atomic blast. I knew Miriam’s firsthand experience would be of interest to my students, many of whom felt wholly disconnected to this moment in history. Miriam served as the living link to that moment.
Taking her seat in Hibbard Humanities Hall, she explained how throughout her 15 months of chemical extraction work with uranium 235, she had little understanding of the military applications of her research. That changed in August of 1945. While riding a train en route to the Smoky Mountains for their honeymoon, newlyweds Miriam and Frank received word that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. Suddenly Miriam’s modest role in the bomb’s development came into sharp focus. Though her heart went out to the innocent victims, she felt relief, too, that her husband Frank — who’d received orders to deploy to Japan within 30 days — would no longer have to undertake such a dangerous mission.
Miriam and Frank’s love story — though unconventional by today’s standards — was hardly unique given the circumstances of the time. Miriam, a Wellesley student then, first laid eyes on the soon-to-be-deployed serviceman while attending a USO mixer in 1942. Though they’d arrived with different dates, by evening’s end the pair would take a liking to each other. After a handful of face-to-face meetings, Frank boldly remarked, “You know, I’m seeing someone, but you could be my second-best girl.” To which Miriam replied, “That’s fine. And you can be my second-best guy.” For the next two-and-a-half years — throughout Frank’s tour across Europe in General Patton’s 3rd Army — Miriam and Frank wrote letters to one another, earning first-place positions in both of their hearts.
In the years to come, as Miriam and Frank started a family in Eau Claire, their priorities shifted toward domestic life. Decades passed before even their children began to understand the extent of their parents’ service to their country.
“You never realize your parents are different until you realize your parents are different,” 54-year-old Bob Carr, the youngest of Miriam and Frank’s children, tells me over coffee. For nearly two decades Bob never heard so much as a whisper of his mother’s work on the Manhattan Project. Though while struggling through his college chemistry class, his brother Tom comically remarked, “Here you are flunking out of chemistry while Mom worked on the atomic bomb!”
As Bob explains, his mother’s disinclination to disclose such details was befitting her character. “Mom didn’t need to be the center of attention,” he says. “She was just as happy being in the background.”
The daughter of Eau Claire contractor L.G. Arnold, much of Miriam’s childhood was spent watching the city’s leading businessmen pay visits to their family home. But throughout the Depression years, the Arnolds began receiving a different demographic of guests as well: unemployed men and women in search of work. Though L.G. Arnold only had so much work to offer, he made certain that no one ever left the home hungry. “Everybody left with a meal,” Bob explains. “Everyone who knocked on the door got fed.” Miriam, though just six in 1929, took careful note of her father’s generosity.
It was a generosity that extended into L.G. Arnold’s construction projects as well. Bob recalls his grandfather’s philosophy on building bridges: “You build bridges for the people behind you,” Bob quotes his grandfather, “not for the people ahead.”
Miriam adopted a similar philosophy throughout her own lifetime of service. Amy Caucutt, 72, and the oldest of the Carr children, remembers her mother’s volunteer work at Sacred Heart Cancer Center. By the 1970s, Miriam had lost her mother and several siblings to cancer, and so, took it upon herself to keep cancer patients’ company in the hospital waiting area. She and the patients would reminiscence about the old days, while Miriam simultaneously knit caps for newborn babies.
“She was a woman who was never idle,” Amy says.
According to Bob, Miriam’s last labor — the installation of the elevator in Christ Church Cathedral — was likely inspired by her and Frank’s 60th anniversary celebration in the church. Upon learning that the lack of an elevator made it impossible for some of their friends to join them in the church’s second floor hall, Miriam took it upon herself to find a solution. Though aware that she might not be able to reap the long-term benefits of the elevator, she was committed to the endeavor out of concern for the people coming next. Miriam’s work on the Elevator Committee, while seemingly modest compared to her Manhattan Project duties, perhaps best exemplifies her dedication to serving others. As a result of her efforts, two weeks before her death, the church broke ground on what we know today as the Frank and Miriam Carr Carriage.
Two years after her death, Miriam’s commitment to lifting others up continues, quite literally, by way of her elevator.
As its doors pull wide, I’m greeted by the view of the church’s great hall. With its wooden floors and stained-glass windows, it’s a glorious view to take in.
One that, thanks to Miriam, we can all enjoy.