By James Pickett Wesberry, Jr., House Page 1949-1951
My father, stepmother and I made the trip from Georgia at the end of February, 1949, with the understanding that my stepmother would stay with me in Washington. We searched for an apartment and found one at the Methodist building right across the street from the Capitol and Supreme Court. My father would visit frequently and coincidentally became friends with another resident, James Shera Montgomery, Chaplain of the House. When Dr. Montgomery took vacation in August that year, he asked my father, a Baptist minister, to serve as Acting Chaplain of the House for a month.
On my first day at work, I met the very dynamic and ebullient Republican Chief Page Joe Bartlett (House ’44). Joe Bartlett went to Washington as a Page in 1941 and spent most of his career there, eventually becoming Reading Clerk and Minority Clerk. Joe had been a Marine and his approach to Page training was a rather premature and frightening service in the United States Marine Corps located in a corner of the Floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. My father was mortified that I was assigned to work on the Republican side as all our family, being from the South, were lifelong Democrats. He got over it after understanding that all Page patronage was with the majority party.
Joe showed me the electronic Page summoning system, gave me an indecipherable card with a diagram of the seating of call numbers, and a pictorial directory of the members of Congress. He told me I would need to learn to recognize all the Republican Members by name both when I was facing them and when I came up behind them. I thought he was crazy. I knew I could never learn all those names and faces, much less the backs of their heads. Yet, I had no choice – and within a few months, had learned most of the Democrats as well. [2016 note: Considering the number of “backs of heads” I looked at from the Page bench, Donald Trump’s hairdo could have been inspired by Reps. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S.D.) and Les Arends (R-Ill.)]
I will never forget Joe. His voice still rings in my ears, “Sit up straight, Jimmy.” “Walk faster, Jimmy.” “Be alert, Jimmy.” He was my first mentor, and I thrived under the discipline. Joe failed at only one thing…making me a Republican…but he came very close. (Although I’ve become more moderate and now consider myself an independent.)
When my term for Rep. Davis came to an end, I was desperate to find a way to stay in Washington. Through his wide political contacts, my father arranged for Rep. Brooks Hays (D – Ark.) to sponsor me. The following year, both Davis and Hays had Pages scheduled and I reluctantly returned home to Atlanta. Despite a driver’s license and new car, I was bored silly. I begged my father to let me go to Washington, “just for a visit.” Miraculously, or so it seemed, during that “visit,” special arrangements were made to have me sponsored jointly by Reps. Davis and Hays, and my Page adventure continued through the 1951 school year.
During my tenure, I was fortunate to be promoted to Assistant Republican Overseer and then to Overseer of Republican Pages. These were cushy jobs because they involved no running of errands, just sitting at the desk and directing the work of the Bench Pages. What really made the jobs soft is that the Overseer and the Assistant Overseer alternated working every other hour. So whether I was working or not, I was present on the Floor and only had to, or I should say, “was lucky enough to” listen to the debates and observe the legislative process. What an education!
There occasionally was friction with Pages who resented taking direction from another Page their same age. I ended up having the only fistfight of my entire life with one upstart down in the basement tunnels under the Capitol. Nevertheless, things worked out and we got our job done with honor.
A notable and historic event occurred in 1950 when the House Chamber was completely remodeled. For several months, House sessions were held in the Ways & Means Committee Room in what then was called the New House Office Building. This room was far too small and the sessions were often crowded. We Pages had to sit in the front of the Chamber, like the Senate Pages still do, but in chairs, and watch for Members to snap their fingers or motion for us to attend them. Indian Prime Minister Nehru spoke to a joint session during that time, and a photo of the speech, including me and two other Pages appeared in My Weekly Reader. I regret that I don’t have a copy.
I was the first House Republican Overseer to use the new, shiny, technologically updated Page call desk. It replaced the old wooden desk that had become ugly over the years due to Pages carving their names, initials and messages in it. To this day, the Chamber remains the same as when it was redecorated. When I see it on television, a great lump forms in my throat and I become very sentimental.
Jim went straight from 11th grade at Capitol Page School to Duke University, then moved to Georgia State University where he received a degree in Accounting and earned his CPA. His Page experience and interest in government led him to specialize in government accounting, auditing and financial management as well as fighting corruption – at a time few CPAs had such an interest. He then went on to head his own CPA firm and served three terms in the Georgia State Senate. In 1967 he went to Peru with the Alliance for Progress and spent the rest of his career working in and/or with Latin American countries’ governments. He retired in 2006 and now lives in Quito, Ecuador.