A Personal Summary of the 2012 Page Alumni Reunion, Washington DC

By Webster Heidelberg, House, 1961

During a recent week in May, Washington received a return visit from hundreds of former Pages, those young messengers of Capitol Hill who first came of age as aides to the nation’s leaders.

1980s Page Alumni

When I received an invitation to this first-ever reunion of all U.S. Capitol and Supreme Court pages (or “Democracy’s Messengers”, as they were now calling us), it recalled a seminal period of my youth. It brought back a myriad of long-forgotten memories of a unique time and place in my life, and it was clear that this meeting was an experience not to be missed.

Fifty-One Years Later:   the Messengers Return

This gathering could have been called, “Pearl Harbor to 9-11,” since attending was a Page who was on duty in the House chamber on December 8, 1941, as President Roosevelt delivered his “Day of Infamy” speech, announcing our entry into World War II, and also a number of pages who were on duty in the Capitol on September 11, 2001, as the country was again the victim of a surprise attack.

And this time the Capitol building itself was one of the targets of the attack, spared only by the heroism of those aboard United Flight 93. And there were those from most every other dramatic period in our history between those two “days of infamy,” and since.

This Page Alumni Homecoming was organized by the U.S. Capitol Page Alumni Association and its Board President, Jerry Papazian, House, 1972 and was the largest-ever gathering of former Pages.

I contacted several former Page friends, who were equally enthusiastic, and plans were quickly made to attend. My wife Michelle was very supportive, and was soon a big fan of the reunion. She had heard various tales of my Page experience over the years, and probably wanted to see for herself who and what I had been talking about. Pretty risky business on my part, but she does have thick skin.

Arrival

Like any class reunion, there is that somewhat anxious period of arrival, while you are getting checked in, settled, and start looking for someone, anyone, that looks in any way familiar. And most of us had not seen each other in over 50 years (literally, youth to late maturity, to be charitable).

Michelle and I managed to link up with those whom I had contacted in advance, like Sid and Beth Kaplan (he worked for Senator Russell Long of Louisiana) and Jan Schoonmaker (who worked for Representative Hale Boggs of Louisiana), supplying the requisite comfort zone, and commenced enjoying ourselves.

Touring Your Former Home

Our meeting was very well planned, and included really well conducted visits to many of our former stomping grounds, including the Capitol, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress.

I had a certain ambivalent feeling much of the time, exhilarated to be back, on the one hand, while tinged with a slight feeling of sadness or emptiness to no longer really belong here—to no longer be an insider in these great halls of government. As if being given a guided tour of a home in which you once, but no longer, lived. Put another way, slightly mixed emotions.

But, not to worry, the experience was wonderful. And, as long as our tax dollars last, there will always be new things to see in Washington.

The Capitol

The most spectacular new thing we saw was where our Capitol visit began, as do all of them now, in the vast new Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which opened in 2008 after eight years of construction. It is sensitively located entirely underground, so as not to obstruct or compete with the Capitol building itself.

The place is enormous, on three levels open to the public (and who knows how many others below them), it is the largest-ever expansion of the U. S. Capitol, more than doubling its footprint. That’s a big building, above or below ground.

It is of course first class in every respect, the best our tax money can buy, and is stylistically sympathetic to the original national icon it serves. To further reference the original, there are several large skylights in the roof of the CVC, providing perfectly framed views of the dome, porticos, and other parts of the great building above, similar to the new sky-lit underground space at the Louvre in Paris.

There is so much room in the CVC that many large school groups, in their color-coded T-shirts, can be organized, accommodated (and even fed), simultaneously with all of the other visitors—it’s really quite an operation, and quite well done.

In the Capitol, our Page group was in the eminently qualified hands of Ron Sarasin, a former Member of Congress and now President of the United States Capitol Historical Society, who gave us the Cook’s tour, literally from one end to the other, and lasting an hour longer than planned.

Returning to the House chamber and cloakrooms (snack bars, phone booths and all) was particularly poignant for us House Pages, as I know our visit to the Senate (which was actually in session) was for the former Senate pages.

To conclude the first day’s touring, our Alumni Association presented an excellent panel discussion by former Pages of various aspects of Page history in the new Congressional Auditorium in the CVC. It is on the lowest of the three public levels and, we were told, can double as a very comfortable and secure shelter, if ever needed. After the discussion, we were treated to a Welcome Reception in the Atrium of the Auditorium, yet another feature of the impressive CVC, where we were joined by our own Senator Roger Wicker, himself a former House Page.

Of all the marvelous and interesting activities we enjoyed during the Reunion, our time in the Capitol probably had the most impact on us old Capitol Pages (as I’m sure the Court had on the Supreme Court Pages), since that’s where we had spent most of our time, and where there were memories around every corner. Literally, everywhere you looked old images were resurrected automatically and unbidden—things that hadn’t crossed your mind in half a century—artifacts of your youth—it was really quite interesting and moving.

The Supreme Court

From the founding of the Republic until just a few years ago there have always been Pages in the U.S. Supreme Court (they were the ones in the knee britches and stockings I mentioned above). However, their program was discontinued a few years ago, in favor of older employees. Their jobs are still being done, but simply by others.

However, former Supreme Court Pages were happy to organize a wonderful visit to the Court for us, which began in the main (en banc) hearing room, where a member of the Court Historian’s office enlightened us on Court history, procedure, personnel, and so forth. And that was followed by a panel discussion in another of the Court’s wonderful chambers, by former Pages, highlighting their unique experiences as Supreme Court Pages years ago.

This was a truly unique experience inside an institution not often seen by many. While one of the three co-equal branches of our national government, the Court is, by its nature, somewhat cloistered and less accessible than Congress (or even the White House).

The Library of Congress

The place where we spent our second greatest amount of time as pages (during the school year) was, of course, our humble school house, the Library of Congress.

From its beginnings with Thomas Jefferson’s personal library (which is still beautifully displayed in its own room), to the world’s largest library, which it is today, it is quite an institution. It is actually the research library of the U.S. Congress, but also our de facto national library. It is also the oldest federal cultural institution of any kind.

While our old Capitol Page School is still pretty much intact on the top floor, it is no longer operating, since the House Page Program was suddenly terminated about a year ago (see discussion below). A very accommodating security guard took us to the top floor to the old school, and we wandered from room to room, reconnecting with those long ago days when we simultaneously tried to stay awake and learn something here. Many memories here as well.

We were also treated to an excellent tour of the library itself, and it was just as impressive as I remembered. It is truly a national treasure. Starting high school in such a setting, my wife just couldn’t understand why I never made Phi Beta Kappa.

Program in Peril

At our concluding Homecoming Dinner we were updated on one of the main reasons the meeting was organized in the first place, the sudden and unexpected termination of the House Page Program in August 2011.

That’s right, even though Congress has had Pages longer than we have had the country (they worked in the First Continental Congress in 1774, before the founding of the Republic), the current House leadership decided on its own to do away with the program.

Needless to say, that was a controversial move which has drawn much criticism and led to the formation of Save the Page Program (STPP) and House Page Network (HPN), as well as this reunion of former Pages, in an effort to reinstate the more than 200 year old institution. A bill has also been introduced in the House to that end.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley (House, 1979) is among those leading the movement to revive the program, along with reunion organizer Jerry Papazian, who commented, “With so many issues on Congress’ plate that will affect the next generation, now is not the time to remove young people from the legislative process. The House Pages were not just messengers, but legislative apprentices–preparing to be our Nation’s next civic leaders. That’s an American tradition you can’t put a price tag on.”

Ken Archer, House, 1991, added, “I would not be who I am without the House Page Program. It was never about delivering papers as cheaply as possible. It was about instilling civic virtue in the next generation, which is why it survived a depression, two World Wars, and a Civil War.”

Others point out that behavioral problems publicized in recent years were due to the misbehavior of Congressmen, not pages, for which the Page Program should not be penalized, much less abandoned.

Time will tell whether their efforts will reverse the unpopular decision and put House Pages back to work.

By contrast, the Senate has chosen to retain its centuries-old Page Program, and we saw and visited with some of its current Pages, who are an impressive group of young men and women of whom we can all be proud.

Another Parting

As our Reunion came to an end, it recalled the end of our Page service fifty years before. And, especially with the House Program currently in jeopardy, we reflected upon the unique bond formed by young men and women sharing such unique experiences at such a young age, so many years ago. And upon what a profound impact those experiences had on each of our lives.

Some Pages chose national government service and remained in or returned to Washington (including many Congressmen and Senators), while others have served on state and local levels. Some have excelled in business, such as Bill Gates, or in academia and the professions.

But, wherever life has taken them, all of those at the Reunion felt that the experience had marked and changed their lives in significant ways, and they strongly hope that experience continues to be available to other young men and women throughout the country for a long time to come.