Ken Smith, Speaker Rayburn page

For a page in Congress back in the 1950s, Ken Smith had it good. As the top page to the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-Texas), he had unique responsibilities. Smith was in town recently for a Page School reunion. He sat down for lunch in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria and, over pork and beans, opened up about life as a page — discussing the drinking that began while he was in Page School and the span of time he believes was among the greatest experiences of his life. Today he runs Christian Stewardship Ministries and teaches time and money management from a biblical perspective.  

When were you a page?
From 1955 to 1957.

For whom?
Sam Rayburn.

Namesake for the Rayburn Building.  
Right.

That’s a pretty huge feat, getting a building named after you.
I think he’s one of the few men in American politics that became a legend while he was in office.

Why a legend?
His integrity was legendary. He never took money for anything. He was born poor, raised poor and died poor in the sense that he never benefited from his position in office. He would never let anyone buy him a meal.  

How did you get into the page program?
When I came along he was an old man. Mr. Rayburn and my grandfather were contemporaries from the same time, Bonham, Texas.

Did your grandfather get you into the program?
No. My father introduced me to Mr. Rayburn in 1954, which was the same summer as the McCarthy hearings. When Democrats came into power in 1955, Mr. Rayburn had his secretary call my house and she said, “You’re going to be a page.” So we went to JCPenney’s and, by Monday, I had a new blue suit, new shoes and a new job.

What was it like to work there?
My first day I passed out on the job.

Seriously?
Yes, in the House Democratic Cloak Room.

Why?
I don’t know. I had lunch in the snack bar and the next thing I knew they laid me out on the couch.

Was your job too strenuous?
I was so enthusiastic about my job that I ran everywhere I went. I ran back and forth from the floor to the House and Senate buildings. As a bench page all you do is deliver, deliver, deliver.

Did you deliver anything unusual?
I remember taking a constituent on an all-day tour of the Capitol and White House, which my superiors were not at all happy about.

Why not?
I didn’t know it was only supposed to be an hour. I was told to give these people a tour and I did.

Any nicknames?
I was known as “Little Sam” and “Tex.”

What for?
He [Rayburn] was very short and I was very short and skinny.

So you were a big man on campus.
I was the little big man on campus. Speaker’s page is as high as you can go in paging.

What was Mr. Rayburn like?
Grandfatherly. I was more like a member of the family than I was a page. It was a family affair. They took care of me.

Did you feel close to him?
Yes, I felt close to him. There was such an aura about him. He had such a presence. He dominated his surroundings. He was best friends with Harry Truman.

What did they have you do?
I had to know every member. When the Speaker had a question on who someone was I had to tell him. When the Speaker wanted to see someone I had to get him. I had to keep track of what was going on on the floor.

Do you have a favorite moment?

Mr. Eisenhower stepped on my foot. When my uncle died, Mr. Rayburn adjourned the House on the spot. He knew him. The reason it was so dramatic is because my uncle committed suicide.

Were there page scandals back then?
We didn’t have scandals. There wasn’t any of the sexual stuff. Kim Novak, an actress, came to the visit the Capitol and was a big hit. She was bosom-blessed.

Did pages drink or smoke in those days?
I started drinking in Page School and became an alcoholic. I drank for 20 years.

Did you get into trouble?
No. I don’t think anyone ever knew about my drinking. But my grades were abysmal. My grades were C’s and D’s. My senior year I went to a prep school in Jacksonville, Fla. I got A’s in prep school.

How did you stop?
I walked into a church one day. The priest was talking about giving things up for Lent. I had a hangover and a headache. God touched me. I went to the priest on the spot and started crying. I walked out and never had another drink again.

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