1950s-Era Pages Return to the Capitol, Full of Memories
It’s been half a century since Art Cameron, then a House page, tore into the Democratic Cloakroom to call a hospital for help after Puerto Rican extremists let loose a stream of gunfire on the chamber floor.
“I said, ‘There’s been a shooting in the House of Representatives. You got to send an ambulance,’” Cameron remembers barking into the receiver. “He said, ‘Kid, you shouldn’t joke about things like that,’ and hung up the phone.”
Cameron, who had been standing right behind Rep. Kenneth Roberts (D-Ala.) when the Congressman was hit by a bullet in the knee, says that everybody “hit the deck” in waves after the first firecracker-like shots.
The shooting was one of many events rehashed last week at a Capitol Page School reunion, which brought together more than 60 men who had worked as pages during the 1950s.
Originally conceived as a 50th anniversary celebration for the class of 1954, the reunion, which began as a contact between two former pages on AOL’s classmates group, soon expanded into much more. “It grew and it grew and it grew,” Cameron says.
As black-and-white photos of grinning adolescents with flat tops and skinny ties are projected on a screen, wives hover protectively snapping photos with digital cameras.
It’s the reunion’s welcome reception at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, and nearly everyone is in fine spirits.
They come bearing scrapbooks (“Isn’t he a cutie?” says one wife of an ex-page when she sees his annual photo), page school fraternity jackets, class rings and plenty of old snapshots.
“Do you remember when Kim Novak came to the Hill?” asks Lowell Baier, turning to a former classmate. Baier was one of four pages dispatched in then-Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-Ariz.) Thunderbird convertible to collect Novak when she visited Capitol Hill in the summer of 1956, he says. A copy of a photograph is soon produced showing the blonde bombshell flanked by four beaming youths. “I can still smell her perfume,” Baier coos.
Theirs was a simpler, more trusting era in Congressional history, according to those in attendance.
Whether watching Fourth of July fireworks from the cupola of the Capitol Dome, smooching with their sweethearts after hours in the Speaker’s chair, singing a solo from the House floor, or sleeping outside on cots on the Senate veranda during Sen. Wayne Morse’s (I-Ore.) marathon 22-hour, 26-minute filibuster, nearly all noted the freedom with which they once traversed and utilized the Capitol building. “Before, we had the run of the Capitol,” says Billy O’Neal, class of 1958. “We were like monkeys up in the Rotunda.”
Being boys, of course, there were plenty of pranks. There was the day in January 1957 when Jerry Bostick and some buddies sneaked up to the inaugural stand, then on the East Front, to snap photos of themselves planting a fake “bomb” — in reality a newspaper rolled up in socks — under President Dwight Eisenhower’s intended chair. Then there was that time when some of the guys fooled their Spanish teacher into believing that one of them had committed suicide by jumping out of a third-floor window of the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building, where their classes were held.
“It was one of the worst pranks,” concedes Cameron. “She had a conniption fit.”
Politics, back then, was still ruled by the unwritten code of after-hours bipartisanship.
“No one cared about who was a Republican and who was a Democrat,” says Mike Jones, class of 1954.
Not to say they didn’t care about the politics involved.
Indeed, public service and politics has figured prominently in many of these men’s post-page lives. Both Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) and the late Rep. Bill Emerson (R-Mo.) were 1950s-era pages. The Wednesday evening gathering boasted more than its share of former presidential appointees, Congressional liaisons and other political types. One ex-Member and a state legislator also made an appearance.
Some pages, like Tom Winebrenner and Cameron, never really left the Hill, spending years running the House Republican and Democratic cloakrooms, respectively, before retiring or moving on to other ventures.
Others, like Texas attorney Dick Morrison, stayed active in “supportive” political roles. Morrison, whose son Richard is running against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), shows up proudly wearing his offspring’s campaign button. “[DeLay] doesn’t know it yet, but we are going to win,” a grinning Morrison says.
Still others say they’d seen enough politics during their years on Capitol Hill and opted for less political lives. Mike Pokrinchak, a 67-year-old former Speaker’s page with shoulder-length white hair, worked as a racetrack jockey, a Green beret and mapper of the Interstate Highway System before settling on landscape design. Robert Parrot, a self-described introvert and great-nephew of former Sen. Huey P. Long (D-La.), spent 27 years working as a special education teacher in Louisiana.
At the time of these pages’ service, John F. Kennedy (D) was just another Member, not a president or an icon, yet. But the Kennedy presence still seems to have made an impression.
Sixty-eight-year-old Max Blanchard, a member of the class of 1955 who started as a page in 1949, never forgot “the time he almost knocked John Kennedy off his feet.”
“He was walking on crutches and I came around the corner and smacked” into him. But the quick-thinking Blanchard quickly steadied the young Congressman, who said, “That’s all right.” He was “very gracious,” Blanchard says.
Meanwhile, Bostick remembers the day when he stopped Kennedy, then a Massachusetts Senator, passing by the House chamber door. The two hit it off and “a week later, he brought me a copy of” “Profiles in Courage,” Bostick says.
Kennedy wasn’t the only historic figure these pages encountered. When a fellow page was converting to Catholicism and in need of baptism godparents, then-House page Robert Bauman convinced then-Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) and his wife to serve in that capacity. Ken Smith, class of 1958, remembers watching former President Harry Truman patiently waiting, hat in hand, for a moment with then-Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas).
“We know more stuff than we would ever talk about,” says Stan Armstrong, class of 1957, somewhat cryptically. “We know more about Members of Congress … than their wives.”
One of the pages, it turns out, had his own secret to worry about — one that would later land him in the middle of a major Congressional sex scandal.
Ex-Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.), class of 1955, lost his seat in Congress in 1980 after the then-married Bauman was charged with soliciting sex from a teenage boy. Bauman, now general counsel to the Sovereign Society, a group that helps individuals shield their assets in offshore banks, arrives sporting a deep tan, a cubic zirconium diamond stud in his left ear, and a thoroughly unrepentant mien.
“I’m gay,” the 67-year-old says candidly when asked about his unorthodox ear accouterment. “I was ahead of my time.”
And what of the response from his fellow pages?
When the salacious details first made headlines more than two decades ago, Bauman said “one other page” who was not present at the reunion last week had contacted him to say, “I’m one, too.”
As if on cue, Mike Jones, a former classmate, walks over and throws an accepting arm around Bauman’s neck.
“How are you, you old son of a bitch?” he drawls jovially, a glass of scotch in his free hand. “This is one fantastic Congressman.”
The intervening 50 years have seen many changes since the all-male, all-white class of 1954 graduated from the Capitol Page School. Racial and gender integration came to the program in the 1960s and ’70s — though the Supreme Court pages, no longer in existence, integrated in the 1950s.
The 1982 page sex and drug scandal, “a lot of smoke and very little fire,” led to the most dramatic restructuring to date and brought an end to the days when pages lived in rooming houses run by “old widows,” says Donnald Anderson, a former page and the last Democratic Clerk of the House. A new, high school juniors-only program was created, and pages were required to live in official dormitories. Separate House and Senate page schools were also established. “Our alma mater went out of business in 1983,” Anderson says.
Still, when the group arrives at the Thomas Jefferson Building’s third-floor digs of the House page school on Friday, the memories come flooding back.
As Bauman enters the space that used to be a trio of classrooms and now serves as the Emerson Hall — named after the late Missouri Congressman and page — he breaks into a volley of French.
“J’ai étudié français sur Madame Block,” he says, referring to his French teacher at the time. Bauman is quick to note, however, that his grammar may be just a bit off.
In a nearby window bay, former page Terry Scanlon, class of 1957, is teasing Armstrong about the day he locked the English teacher, Mr. Vail, outside on the balcony.
“It was all of us,” Armstrong shoots back. “The principal’s office was down there, so we went that way,” he adds, gesturing in the opposite direction. “We had to do something, we were such good boys.”
There are still a few more surprises to come.
At the end of one corridor, Roger Williams, class of 1957, spies some ladder-like steps leading up to an opening on the library’s roof.
“How’d I miss this?” he says, as he takes advantage of the opportunity to survey the view from the world’s largest library.
Later, the group returns to the floor of the House of Representatives for an update on the changes that have occurred in the chamber since their tenure there. Aside from the arrival of television cameras and electronic voting, there has been one distinctly modern addition, Anderson tells them. The Congressional Record binders — once stored underneath the Members’ chairs for pages to update daily — have been replaced by biohazard escape hoods. “Don’t touch,” Anderson warns them.
The Last Dance
Just before the pages’ commemorative tree planting on the Capitol grounds on Thursday, 68-year-old Jack Allen takes a moment to reflect on the reunion’s personal significance in his own life.
“These were guys I worked with and went to school with every single day,” says Allen, who first conceived of the reunion idea and said it was “important” to see everyone together one more time because he’d “gotten to the point where the grim reaper is looking over [his] shoulder.”
In Allen’s 1954 class, 15 of the still-living 17 pages turned out for the reunion.
“We’re pretty much just the same old guys when you think about it,” concludes class of 1957’s Larry Fernsworth, a retired police officer. “We all look different, but we sound the same.”