Tales From Pages of Years Ago

Posted April 7, 2008 at 6:37pm

More than 50 years ago, Frank Quinn answered a call in the Senate cloakroom. It was President Dwight Eisenhower, asking the young page to put Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) on the phone.

Quinn’s response was candid, if not entirely respectful: “No shit,” he said.

It was only after Eisenhower’s surprised “Pardon me?” that Quinn realized it wasn’t a fellow Senate page playing a prank. He had actually just cursed at the president.

“I ran out of there,” he recounted last week, and quickly found Dirksen.

Quinn spent several years as a page in the 1950s, enjoying the privilege and freedom of a time without computers, cell phones or the frenzy of today’s mass media.

Last week, he joined more than 100 former pages from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in visiting Capitol Hill and recalling the memories of their high school years.

Some things are the same. Teenage pages still go to school in the top floor, or attic, of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. They still man the cloakroom and ferry messages between Members and staffers. Days still begin at the crack of dawn and sometimes end in the middle of the night.

But the former pages also noted stark differences. For one, the teenagers — some as young as 14 — usually spent from two to four years in Washington. All this with almost no supervision.

“It was amazing most of us didn’t get in trouble,” said Stanley Armstrong, who graduated from page school in 1957.

Trouble, of course, is relative. Armstrong remembers students trapping a teacher out on the Library’s third-story balcony. Some classmates frequented the local bars that unfailingly served the minors. They also etched their names into the Capitol Dome and threw basketballs down the building’s winding staircases.

Most pages rented out a room in the boarding houses on Capitol Hill, walking to class by themselves in the morning and exploring the city by trolley or taxi at night.

“Capitol Hill was really a dump. Dangerous too,” said Peter Wallison, who graduated in 1959. “But somehow we made it through.”

The neighborhoods around the Capitol are now much different, with condos emerging on street corners and an influx of middle-class families.

Security, however, has tightened for the high schoolers charged with helping Members. House pages now all live in a guarded dorm and adhere to curfews. Recently, the Clerk of the House — who oversees the House program — bought phones with GPS capability for pages who leave the dorm.

Last week, the former pages expressed surprise at every instance of security. After going through the metal detectors and screening in the Library of Congress, one joked to collective laughter: “They used to check us when we came out, not when we came in!”

The page program has gone through many changes in the last few decades. The first major wave of reform came in 1982, when two Members were accused of having sexual relations with House pages. In the aftermath, a Congressional commission raised the minimum age to 16 from 14 and required pages to stay in a dorm near the Capitol.

Security tightened again after Members discovered in 2006 that then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was sending illicit online messages to pages. And it got even worse after four House pages were expelled from the program last fall — two for sexual misconduct.

Just last week, the House Page Board released new guidelines for how Members should interact with pages. The list of restrictions — including one suggesting Members avoid being alone with a page — almost reads like a how-to guide for the 1950s and ’60s generation.

Former pages described close relationships with Members, some of which lasted a lifetime. Several remembered when Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.) lent his Thunderbird to a page for the prom. Others dated Members’ daughters — including Armstrong, who couldn’t immediately remember his former girlfriends’ names.

And then there were those pages who were the sons of Members, brought to the Capitol so they could learn the ropes or just be close enough for parental supervision.

George Andrews joined his father in the Capitol in 1960s — or, as the Alabama-native puts it: “I was appointed by my daddy.”

He lived at the Congressional Hotel with his parents. Every day after work, he talked about the day’s issues with his father, Rep. George William Andrews (D-Ala.).

Now, of course, Members must sign anti-nepotism pledges. And since 2004, most pages are limited to only a semester in the program. Members said the time limit was meant to curb any trouble; the longer pages spent in the program, they reasoned, the more comfortable the teenagers got and the more prone to get into trouble.

But Andrews and his peers had years to develop pranks and misbehave.

Older pages sent younger ones on bogus missions, asking them to find a fictitious “bill-stretcher” or sending them to nonexistent offices. They dropped golf balls from the Capitol Dome to see how far they would bounce.

On one boring afternoon, Andrews and fellow page Pierre Tullier fed laxatives to the hated Japanese pit bull who belonged to Tullier’s landlord. They still laugh at the image of the woman dragging a shovel into the living room to clean up the mess.

But they say those years also taught them how to do their jobs well. They were able to memorize every Member’s face and try out different responsibilities.

Like today’s pages, they kept a full schedule. Larry Fernsworth, class of 1957, remembers quickly walking from school to the Capitol.

“Barely had enough time to have a cigarette on the way over,” he said.

The experience served them well: Last week’s reunion was a mix of former Members, doctors, lawyers and politicos.

Many also saw historic events from the unique vantage point of a teenager in the Capitol.

Andrews helped prepare the in-state funeral of President John F. Kennedy. At one point, he stepped outside to take a break and saw the silent masses of mourners filling the Capitol Hill streets, numbering what “must have been 20,000 people.”

“I told myself, ‘Don’t forget this moment,’” he said. “That’s a moment I will take to my grave. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.”

The page program was also a reflection of historical changes. Starting out as an all-white, all-male program more than a century ago, the program slowly became more diverse over the past 50 years.

Chuck Bush had the distinction of becoming the first black page in 1954, serving the Supreme Court, the same year it made its landmark ruling in Brown v. The Board of Education.

Supreme Court pages were part of the larger page program. There were only four; each of whom as was highly visible as they sat in on all the proceedings.

Bush began his first year faced with a flurry of press, but after it died down, he made friends and become one of the crowd, he said.

Sometimes, he would meet visiting heads of state, and once a year he and the other pages would have a formal dinner with the nine justices.

When asked what it was like to be the first black page in an all-white program, Bush gestures at the sea of white faces at the reunion.

“It’s like if you were to walk into an all-black cocktail party,” said Bush, who later became the first black graduate of the Air Force Academy. “I live it every day of my life.”

Despite the integration of the Supreme Court page program, the House and Senate didn’t accept black pages or women until the 1960s and ’70s.

Some of those female and black pages from the ’60s and ’70s attended last week’s reunion — though most of the group reflected the reality of a male-dominated page program.

Ken Smith, class of 1958, decided to organize the event after a successful reunion four years ago. It’s hard to get everyone together, he said; some former pages decided to come just days before the event.

But once told, it seemed that few could stay away. Many said it was one of the best times of their lives.

“It was a great experience,” Fernsworth said. “One I never would allow my kids to have.”