Keeper of the House

Thirty-three years working with high school seniors and college students---and still not a gray hair. Now that she thinks about it, "I probably outrank every legislator," says Cornelia Watson. Not until at least an hour of pleasant conversation and reminiscence had passed did Watson begin to realize just how many young faces had come under her care and supervision as the long-time coordinator of the student page and legislative intern programs of the Maryland General Assembly. "I haven't ever counted up the number," she says, "but, let's see, that's 120 pages plus 36 alternates, add in as many as 100 interns, multiply times 33 years....

"Mike Busch is going to be the sixth speaker of the House that I will have worked with," she says with apparent ease, despite the change of command. (Busch and Watson were classmates at St. Mary's High School.) As we walk across the deep blue carpet in the House Chamber and look up at the oil paintings illuminated by the Tiffany glass ceiling, she points to the other five: "That's Thomas Hunter Lowe (now deceased); John Hanson Briscoe (recently retired judge in St. Mary's County); Benjamin L. Cardin (now Congressman Cardin); R. Clayton Mitchell, Jr.; and Casper R. Taylor, Jr." This is a woman so familiar with the room that she can make a newcomer feel comfortable in its formal setting. As Watson puts it, "I'm part of the marble."

Asked whether she could remember a time when everything was new and unfamiliar, she says, "I was a year out of college and had been working in Washington, D.C., and I wanted to work closer to home. A friend of mine whom I knew from my local hobby-community theater-worked for the Associated Press in the State House and told me about this page program. That would be Tom Stuckey, "known affectionately as 'dean of the press corps,'" says Watson, "because he's [also] been here so long. I knew nothing about pages---in fact, I thought he meant (I was) 'to page' people." Watson recalls that after a "rainy night interview" in the speaker's office she got a call---and "they liked me!"

For the first 25 years, the page coordinator position was not year 'round. Four months of the year were devoted to the page program, and during the remaining eight months, Watson worked for the Maryland Department of Education. That is not as odd a relationship as it might seem. In 1970, (Watson came in 1971) the speaker of the house was Thomas Hunter Lowe. He piloted the program using high school seniors as pages. "That was the first time it was done," says Watson. "He did not want the program to be a patronage program (wherein senators and delegates would make the selections of the pages). In other words, he wanted students to do it on their own."

The page program was actually set up by the Maryland Board of Education, and the students apply through their schools. "In the U.S. Congress, it is all [done through] patronage," Watson explains. "It's not done here that way at all. In 1971, the Senate adopted the program and its been in the House and Senate ever since."

The page program starts in August of every year, when information is sent out to the schools. The General Assembly always opens the second Wednesday in January at high noon and always closes on a Monday in early April at midnight (this year, April 7). The opening is written in the state constitution, and the program runs for 90 days (13 weeks), which includes weekends.

Watson directly supervises the pages who work in the House Chamber. Administratively, however, she runs the entire program (for the House and Senate). "They're in session at the same time, so I have [responsibility for] the larger of the two chambers." Watson sends out information describing the program to all of the schools. Each county has a page coordinator appointed by the local superintendent of schools. The coordinator is responsible for setting up a committee to select the students who ultimately become pages and alternates. Each county is given a certain amount of page and alternate slots based on the high school senior population of the public and non-public schools. "This way, the students are really representing themselves," says Watson. Students must be at least 16 years old and, by November, all the county page coordinators must have submitted their formal applications.

"The first thing I do is the scheduling. Then I do the re-scheduling," explains Watson, "because students are so active these days with school activities, sports and jobs." Each page is scheduled for two non-consecutive weeks in either the House of Delegates or Senate, and they do not alternate between the two, serving one week during the first eight weeks and returning for a second week during the last five. Watson also arranges the housing for the students who reside outside the county. "We have about six private homes within walking distance. Some of these homes I've been using for over 20 years," she says. There are always at least two pages in each house. None of the homes is "co-ed," and $15 is paid for each night the home is in use. The students are paid $38 per day, which needs to cover their expenses, including housing and meals.

The student pages are distinguished by their gray blazers with the state seal on the pocket and distinct nametags: red for Senate; black for House. But the quiet "gray" color wasn't always the case. Watson recalls, "We had these blazers that, over the years, varied in color from olive green to bright gold. They were those wonderful ribbed polyester with lapels you could fly away with. Now the pages don't 'scream' as much with the gray. The one thing [I miss] about the gold blazers was that you could spot them in the chamber, but the pages like the gray much better."

The college intern program was set up formally in 1980 and also runs for 90 days. When the opportunity came in 1990, Watson felt she was ready to do both programs. "That way, I could be in Annapolis year 'round," she says.

Although there is a program limit of 100 interns, Watson says, "in the last few years the number has dropped. For the last couple of years, we've hovered around 70." She reasons that there are so many competing internship programs and "private industry has realized what a great free resource they are."

Although Watson does not directly supervise the interns, she does all the administrative work, such as reading all the applications and essays. "But the members request an intern," she explains, "and they read the applications and pick the students they would like to interview."

The interns have some clout as well. They can choose to work in a senator's or delegate's office or for a committee or caucus, and both must agree on the placement. Watson does the orientation, holds a few seminars for them, and monitors the time sheets and stipends. Who would know better than Watson whether there are any present members who started out as pages. "There are three I'm aware of," she says. "One is Sen. David R. Brinkley (Frederick County). He was a delegate and just won a Senate seat. Then there's Del. James E. Rzepkowski (Anne Arundel County), and just elected as a new member is Del. Justin D. Ross. But there may be more." Watson was even more anxious to talk about the page weddings that have occurred. "There've been two," she says. "They met here, dated through college and then got married. I'm training groups every Monday for many weeks [in advance of the session] and I always tell the pages, 'You never know when romance is going to hit.'"

With obvious affection for her students, Watson describes the diversity of the group. "They come from alot of different backgrounds. You have the rural students in with the city students and they're all typical teenagers just trying to decide where to go for dinner. They don't know each other on Monday, but by Friday you'd think they knew each other for years."

One of Watson's most cherished possessions is a pastel drawn by a former page (Robert Alley, Anne Arundel County) in 1974. "I fell in love with it and begged him for it," she says. It's cartoon-like in style and some of the colors have faded but not her memories: "I recognize the speaker of the House, with black sideburns, and the chief clerk. They're smoking cigars-they can't smoke on the floor any more. I see the gold blazersand I'm in it (not too attractively, I'd say). The page has drawn himself looking at a seating chart; another page is serving coffee, which reminds me of the time when one of the delegates, who smoked and had a seeing-eye dog, flicked ashes from his cigar and they fell onto the dog's coat. Suddenly, there was smoke and [then Del.] Bobby Neall doused it out with water." Oh, the stories she could tell after all this time.

Thirty-three years have passed and Watson sees it this way: "About five years ago I went to the second generation of pages. I'm not sticking around for the grandchildren...but that's when I realized I'd been here a long time. Wouldn't it be fun to know where they all are now?" Well, it seems at least three of them are back where they started.


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