Few people can boast 50 years of federal service. But Federal Drive with Tom Temin‘s guest started as a page in Congress in 1972 and he never left. He is no longer a page, of course. Now he is the building services coordinator for the House office buildings, an employee of the Architect of the Capitol. Take a listen to Tom Temin’s interview with Donnie Ward.
Donnie Ward The superintendent’s office, which is a division of the architect of the Capitol, the architect of the Capitol, has over 2500 employees whose job is basically to help maintain and upkeep all the physical facilities on the hill, all the buildings, including the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the House side of the Capitol, the Senate side of the Capitol, the Capitol building itself, the botanical gardens, the grounds crew, as well as the power plant. So we have employees around the clock maintaining the structure of the building.
Tom Temin And you might want to relate the degree of use these buildings get unless you’ve been in one of these buildings, and I have been in all of them once or twice over the years, at least, the level of activity in them is just amazing. And it’s quite a long workday that they are busy, correct?
Donnie Ward Oh, yes, indeed. There’s always something going on. We have the members, number one, conducting their official business for Congress, and then we will sometimes have outside organizations that will come in and have receptions in various buildings like the committee rooms and the banquet rooms. So we’re basically trying to keep everyone happy and make sure everything is working well for everyone that’s there.
Tom Temin And you are around and near and close to the members periodically, time to time in your daily work. Have you noticed the phenomenon that, bad as they may sound politically in cable news and news accounts? I’ve never met one who’s not personally extremely cordial and really good at small and large talk.
Donnie Ward Well, most of the members are very concerned about how they are appearing to the public and they’re very kind to everyone that they come in contact with. They never know who you’re talking to, number one. So you have to be at your best at all times. Every now and then, you may find a member that may not be as pleasant as they could be. But you have to realize, we’re all human beings. We all have bad days sometimes. So you have to deal with that.
Tom Temin We’re speaking with Donnie Ward. He is building services coordinator for the House Office Buildings and the Office of the Architect of the Capitol and a 50-year employee, in one form or another for Congress. And what was it like for a Black page in 1972 when you when you arrived?
Donnie Ward Well, it was quite an honor, number one. And that’s a long, long story, how all that came about. It started for me in the fifth grade when I was 11 years old. My teacher, Mrs. Alma Carter, we were having class and we were doing our geography studies that day and there was a chapter on Washington, DC, and they had all these little pictures on the various buildings and little notes on what goes on in the building. And when it came to the Capitol, because we were children, I guess the author decided to have something in the book that would appeal to the kids at that time. And there was a couple of paragraphs on the functions of Capitol pages, and when I read about them, it was like a light went off at me. I was simply fascinated by them and I kept telling myself, that’s what I’m going to be. I’m going to be a page boy for Congress. Now I’m just 11 years old. No one in my family was politically involved other than just go into the voting booth to vote for various situations. No one had heard of page boys, so I was simply consumed with learning about the page program. I would go to the libraries and do research on them and to find out what they did and how they manage their day. And then around that time, I think in 1970, 71, I was working at a more upscale men’s barber service in Newport News called Bob Smith Barber Service in the Warwick Shopping Center. I was a shoeshine boy there. Also. I met a man by the name of John Fitzgerald, who was on the city council, and I was shining his shoe. We were having a nice little conversation and I was telling him of my interest in going to Washington and being a page boy. He said, Oh, Donnie, that’s interesting. I said, um, would you happen to know Congressman Downing? He said, Yes, I do. And as a matter of fact, I’m going to see him sometime this week. I said, Would you mind telling him about me and giving me his address so I can write him? He said, I certainly would Donald. So he would come to D.C. periodically and talk to the congressman about me. And he gave me his address and I wrote him a letter. When I was 14, my first letter, and he wrote me back. And told me, Donald, it was a pleasure to hear from you. And the page program starts at 16. But in the meantime, keep your grades up and keep me abreast of all your activities you were doing in the community. So for two years, I remained faithful writing Congressman Downing and keeping him abreast of all my grades, all my club activities, all my involvement in this city. And, um, when I turn 16 at 12:00 midnight, I sat down at my desk and said Congressman Downing, I just turned 16 years old and I’m ready to come to Washington and be your page boy. Well, I wrote the letter in April of 72.
Tom Temin So then you went to Washington?
Donnie Ward Yes. In 1972, I was selected over several hundred young men to be a page boy. And I was the first Black page. But when I was honored that he took the chance on me and I realized at that time what an awesome responsibility had been handed to me. And I knew that the world will be watching me. Number one, I knew I had to dot my I’s and cross my T’s because at that time the doors were just beginning to open for minorities in all aspects of government and the world. And I really wanted to be an example for my family, for my for my people, and for for the whole nation, as a matter of fact. As I worked on the House floor during the House sessions, I also served as the House Democratic flag page. Now, all the flags that you see that are flown that are you like schools and churches and places like that, those flags are sent to those homes or organizations by the members of Congress. And each one of those flags are flown over the Capitol for 15 or 20 seconds. You have to say they’ve been flown as an honor and then they’re delivered back to the member. And my job was to go downstairs with this huge truck, flat truck around 12:00 every day and sign out all of the Democratic members flags. And I, in turn, would deliver those flags throughout the Hill complex in the Rayburn Building, Longworth Building or the Cannon Building. So I got plenty of exercise throughout that experience. It was really great.
Tom Temin And at what point did you make the transition to regular federal employee of the executive branch in the architect of the Capitol?
Donnie Ward The Dwight David Eisenhower nuclear battleship had just been commissioned, had just been finished, completed at the shipyard, and my congressman, along with his staff, was invited to go down to the commissioning of that ship. And it was really exciting. And while I’m there, I met this lady by the name of Mrs. Bates, and we’re just talking having a great time because her son Jane was a fellow page boy, so I knew him from school. So we’re just talking, having a great time. I’m just being myself, just having a good time. And when we get back to D.C. after the weekend, my congressman’s AA calls me into the office as he said, Donnie, do you remember Mrs. Bates, who you were speaking to this weekend? And I said, Well, yes, I do. I enjoyed meeting her and talking with her. He said, well, she just happens to be the wife of the superintendent of Capitol Hill. I didn’t know what the superintendent was. I said, Well, that’s wonderful. God bless her. Congratulations. And he said, well, she said, well, she was very impressed with you, and she thinks she would be a great asset to her husband’s organization. I said, Really? Okay. Wonderful. Thank you. So basically, he was saying, well, they have a position for you if you want to take it. Go over, meet Mr. Bates and just see what it’s all about. So I did the following day and we talked about it. I enjoyed meeting with him and talking with him. And sure enough, that one conversation led to my position at that time as a service assistant in the House Superintendents Office and my position as a service assistant has now been upgraded as a service coordinator, but we’re just basically dealing with service. And when I get to office, I, I come in, I log into my computer and we take the phone calls from the members of Congress and the staffers, whatever problem they’re having, like, ‘well Donnie, I have a my fluorescent light is out in my office or I need the paint job or there’s a short in one of the outlets adding some carpentry work done.’ All of those things come to my office and we in turn will log those requests in our computer system and they will be sent to the various shops that handle those responsibilities. And we basically try to take care of those things as quickly as possible.
Tom Temin And in all the years you’ve been there, decades, really. Any particular members stand out for you?
Donnie Ward Well, first and foremost is my member, Congressman Thomas N. Downing. He was a great man. He has since passed on. He was so intelligent and so kind and so generous. And he just showed compassion to everyone. And he was very serious about his job. And he took care of his constituents. He really did. And each year around Christmas time, Congressman Downing, we had this huge Christmas party in the Cannon Caucus Room or one of the committees. And what I love about Congressman Downing that taught me so much about how you treat people is that he would remember everyone that helped him do something in the office, no matter who you were, if you were an ambassador or if you were a fellow member of Congress, or if you were a laborer or a carpenter that came to his office and hung pictures, he would make sure that you would get a personal engraved invitation to his party each year.
Tom Temin Yeah. You don’t forget.
Donnie Ward The height of the Christmas season. Oh, we had a wonderful time. I’m telling you, we had this huge Christmas tree made up Styrofoam, and we would have it would be decorated with shrimp all around for decorations. It was fantastic. Great time, was a wonderful man.
Tom Temin All right. And what about recent years? What are things like there as as maybe it’s gotten a little less cordial, a little less politics aside after hours, that kind of thing?
Donnie Ward Yeah, Capitol Hill has changed over the years. It’s not as warm and friendly as it once was years ago. Is is very how should I say this? Oh, it’s more it’s always been focused, but it’s just not as oh, the good times are not to be had like we had years ago. Things are much more scrutinized now. They’re they’re weighing things very carefully. Should I do this? Should I do that? How did this look on the outside? So it has changed somewhat, but we we still managed to keep a smile going every now and then.