Friends in High Places

Published 3:51 am Saturday, January 31, 2009

Franklin native Emma Hayes Carr became a part of American presidential history when she was one of a few hand-selected Amtrak employees privileged to provide car service for President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their families as they traced Abraham Lincoln’s route from Philadelphia to Washington days before taking their posts at the White House.

Carr, a Richmond resident who still has relatives in the Franklin area, was selected to work on what’s been dubbed “The Obama Express” because of the close friendship she had formed with Vice President Joe Biden over the years while he commuted daily in her train car between Delaware and Washington.

Amtrak Northeast Corridor Superintendent Howard Carter said employees selected for the presidential duty had to possess the ability to deliver first-class service.

“This was a very important train ride, and only the best of the best were chosen,” Carter said.

He said Carr’s demeanor, attitude and exceptional service helped her stand out.

“Ms. Carr is a delightful woman whose service is meticulous, and she no doubt had provided that service to Mr. Biden many times before,” Carter said.

Still, Carr was shocked to learn that she had been picked to help escort the dignitaries on their historic journey.

“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “All my managers said I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I took the assignment as a great honor.”

Carr, the daughter of the late Hicks and Katie Hayes, described her relationship with the vice president as one of mutual respect.

“Mr. Biden was a regular rider that we all called by name when we saw him coming up the platform,” she said. “We established what would I consider to be very much a friendship. When we talked, it wasn’t about politics at all. We would discuss what was going on in our lives.

“Mr. Biden was never too busy that he couldn’t give you that special attention that only can be demonstrated by people who have a sincere interest in others.”

Carr said that after a while, she started giving him special treatment. “If I saw him sitting in business class, I would bring him up to my car. We treated him first class, because that’s how he treated us. He was never demanding. He would sit there and mingle with us like family,” she said.

Though the Secret Service did not allow Amtrak employees into the president and vice president’s private car while they were conducting business, Carr did have opportunities to interact with them and their families when they came out to mingle during the retracing of Lincoln’s journey. However, Carr spent much of her time attending to the needs of Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia.

Carr, a 1968 graduate of Hayden High School, said the day of the train ride happened to coincide with Michelle Obama’s birthday, and Carr helped the children decorate the car to celebrate the occasion.

“They were just normal kids having fun. They were laughing, singing and enjoying themselves,” she said of the girls. “Everyone asks me if they were well-behaved. I am pleased to report that they are very well-mannered children.”

Carr said she will remember the entire experience for a lifetime, but there are a few moments that stand out.

“It was amazing to see all those people who were just standing by in the cold, on top of fences and cars just to catch a glance at President Obama and wave at him as the train passed through,” she said.

The other highlight was the chance to meet the new first lady.

“I was so honored to meet the first lady because of the example that she is setting for other young black women by working so hard to keep her family together,” Carr said.

The first lady laughed and joked with her and was very down to earth, Carr said. “She called me ‘Little People’ because I’m so short.”

“She said I reminded her of her own mother,” Carr said. “I just encouraged her to keep on being the beautiful person that she was inside and commended her on the wonderful job she was doing in raising her family.”

As for Biden, Carr will miss him sitting in her car every day, like he did as a U.S. senator, but doesn’t think she’s seen the last of him.

“He told me I haven’t gotten rid of him because he says he’ll still ride the train on the weekends,” she said.

Although Carr’s not sure how often the Secret Service will allow Biden to take the Amtrak, “I don’t think he’ll lose his relationship with us,” she said.