Joyce Hamlett: The keeper of the mace

It seems entirely fitting that the keeper of the historical House mace should be a woman raised on the tenet “Thou shalt not lie.”

Growing up in the tobacco fields of Broadway, N.C., Joyce Hamlett never imagined that a little country girl from the sticks could one day become a part of history.

But that is what she was, a little country girl who was raised by her grandfather and surrounded by crops, livestock and a strong Christian faith. They lived by the Bible in a family-oriented church community that bore the philosophy, “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.”

One thing was for certain: She was not to lie.

“It’s totally forbidden to lie,” Hamlett says.

She remembers the one time she was whipped. It involved a neighbor’s watermelon patch. She and her playmates would steal watermelons from the patch. “We would roll down the hill and we’d eat the heart out [of the melon],” she recalls.

Soon enough, the neighbor caught on and her aunt forced the truth out of them. “It’s totally forbidden to lie,” she says. “My aunt lined us up and burnt us up with a switch.”

Honesty has always been ingrained in Hamlett, and she believes it will always be a part of her, whatever she does. “I look at it as a job,” she says of being keeper of the mace. “But it’s the honest part. I’m fair. I treat everyone the same.”

This past summer, Hamlett was promoted to Assistant Sergeant at Arms to Jack Keller, a position that bears great historical responsibility. Her main duty is to protect the mace, a large, ornate device — 46 inches high with 13 ebony rods — that opens the House each day and closes it each night. Atop the shaft is a silver globe upon which sits an intricately cast solid-silver eagle.

Once set, the House is in order. Once lifted, the House closes. In cases of emergency, the mace goes with Hamlett and is locked up. She marvels that she is the first black woman to hold the post. It thrills her that the mace dates back to the 1800s.  

“People say destiny,” she says. “I say God. It was a plan he had, a plan for me all my life. I still cry sometimes. I think about how far I’ve come from where I was.”

When she was growing up, Crosby, the brother of Hamlett’s grandfather’s wife, served as a “Mr. Belvedere” character in her life. Each morning, he walked her and her siblings to the bus stop and took to the daily details of their lives, including caring for their dog, Sandy. Down the road lived her grandmother, who resided amid chickens and pigs in a grove of pecan, black walnut and pear trees.
“It was just a happy life,” she says. “We had chores. I might have taken things for granted then, but I know now I had a lot.”

When Hamlett was in seventh grade, her mother, Betty Pearson, left North Carolina for Washington. “I guess it’s everyone’s dream to come to the city and make it work,” she says. Hamlett stayed behind.

In the early 1980s, Hamlett came to Capitol Hill to work alongside her mother in the Capitol café. She started off as a sandwich maker and rose to grill cook. Within five years, a manager from the House Dining Room brought her upstairs to be hostess and handle the cash register.

“I believe if you are going to do a job, learn everything about it because you never know when you are going to have to step in for someone else,” she says.

As fortune would have it, the chef took leave, and Hamlett learned to cook for lawmakers upstairs in the restaurant. “I’m still in awe of them,” she says of the politicians she protects. “I recognize that these are the people who make the laws, who run the country.”

Shortly thereafter, she left the Capitol to work for the Defense Mapping Agency, but six months later returned to the café to be assistant manager.

A while later, a police officer who had taken her under his wing learned of an opening for an elevator operator. Former Rep. Lewis Stokes (D-Ohio) sponsored Hamlett to work on an elevator operated under the Architect of the Capitol.

“It was a lot of fun,” Hamlett recalls. “You learned a lot. I was able to read on the elevators.” A favorite was the National Enquirer.

But one day Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) got on board and noticed she was not reading.
“He said, ‘You’re not reading today?’ ”

New rules had just come into effect, preventing elevator operators from reading on duty.

“He didn’t take kindly to that,” Hamlett says of Frank. “He said something so we were able to continue to read.”

For the next five years, she worked the elevators. Mostly, it is the personalities she remembers. “You have to realize you’re working with different personalities,” she says. “Some days you’re in a bad mood. Some days they’re in a bad mood.”

She admits “it hasn’t been all fun,” recalling “moments where you might have felt you were spoken to in a way you shouldn’t have been.”

More often than not, it is the kind words and gestures she remembers most.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), formerly a doorkeeper, helped her apply for that same job. It was his father, then-Rep. Lacy Clay Sr. (D-Mo.), who sponsored her.

In 1994, the Republicans took charge and abolished the doorkeeper office. Everyone had to be interviewed for the job’s new title, chamber security.

Hamlett soon earned her reputation as a tough cop for reporters. There would be no skimpy clothing. No cleavage. There would be no sneakers in the Speaker’s Lobby. And male reporters would all wear ties.

“It’s an extension of the House,” she says. “Take it how you want to.”

In addition to reporters who did not always take to the rules, there were other questionable characters to handle. Take the woman who came in the East doorway waving a pass. “I’m a duly member of Congress and this is my voting card!” Hamlett recalls the woman saying.

Clearly not a member of Congress, the woman was told in no uncertain terms, “Ma’am, you want to be upstairs. That’s a pass for your belongings.”

Sept. 11, 2001, remains among Hamlett’s worst memories. Out on the Speaker’s Lobby balcony she could see smoke from the Pentagon. Inside, five members of Congress, including then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), remained.

“Mr. Speaker, you gotta go!” she recalls saying as her knees shook. “He said, ‘I have to open the House.’ I said no. I knew something was terribly wrong. I had a job to do and that was making sure every member got out. There was no way I was going to leave a member of Congress on the floor.”

As tough as she sometimes has to be on lawmakers, enforcing the rules of the floor day in and day out, she sees many of them as family. And it crosses partisan boundaries. Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) calls her “Joy,” Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) commonly refers to her as “Smiley,” Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) often tells her she is like a sister, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a soul mate of sorts, calls Hamlett her “Ace Boon Koon,” which is slang for good friend.

Hamlett’s real-life family consists of her mother, two grown sons and five grandchildren.

How does she handle policing lawmakers against floor atrocities such as cell phone use, poor attire, eating and drinking? “I have to just block it out and do it,” she says, explaining the delicacy of the job. “It has to be done. We don’t want someone watching C-SPAN and watching a member eating or drinking. People notice everything.”

Lawmakers pretend to be scared of Hamlett, and sometimes the pretense walks a fine line of reality. “I’m scared of you,” jokes Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.). “It’s that rolled-up newspaper that scares me.”

Clay describes Hamlett as someone who “knows about what’s going on on this floor. She is a wonderful personality.” Laughing, he adds, “She has a mouth on her.”

Hamlett’s first days at her new post felt pressure-filled. “To know you are the first person to secure the mace, that’s the overwhelming part,” she says. “I’ve had some people say, ‘Don’t drop it!’ ”

But Keller had great faith in her. “He said, ‘You know what to do,’ and left me there,” she recalls. “It’s not something that you take lightly.”

She adds, “Girl, when I found out it was here since 1883, I take no chances.”

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