Going up? An elevator operator's tale

Gerry Counihan’s job as a Senate elevator operator is to help lawmakers get to where they’re going, but those same lawmakers have also helped him rise above some truly tough times.

The longtime Capitol employee was a victim of a 2007 home invasion and assault so severe he had to relearn basic skills.

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“Learning how to walk and talk and get my memory back — it has been a process,” Counihan told The Hill. It was one he didn’t have to do alone, though, owing to the support of Capitol Hill employees including doorkeepers, lawmakers and Senate Sergeant at Arms staff.

Born with learning disabilities, Counihan beat the odds to earn a degree in theology from Franciscan University in 1988. After a short time working in Texas, he came to Capitol Hill in 1991 to work in Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) mailroom.

“Everybody loved him more than I can tell you,” McCain said. “We just had the greatest affection for him.”

After a brief leave to work in a nursing home as a volunteer coordinator, Counihan returned to the Capitol in 1997 as a tour guide.

Ted Daniel, a former director for the Capitol’s visitor services who is now the House Sergeant at Arms’s special events and protocol director, remembers hiring Counihan. 

“He read all the materials that we gave him to learn how to be a tour guide before he even started his training,” Daniel recalled, chuckling. “He was one leg up on everybody before he even got in the door.”

Counihan’s enthusiasm for history and his work led to several milestones over the next decade. He gave the first public tour following the fatal shooting of two U.S. Capitol Police officers in 1998. And when the Capitol reopened to visitors following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Counihan again led the first tour.

On May 27, 2007, Counihan experienced a tragedy of his own.

“I woke up at 7:15 — now, I don’t remember any of this; people told me this — but I was getting ready for work,” he said. “People broke into my house, they beat me up, I went to try and get help and collapsed on my neighbor’s steps. Three hours later, the mail carrier found me.”

Counihan spent a week in Washington Hospital Center and four weeks in National Rehabilitation Hospital. Unsure if he would ever walk again, he received support from an unlikely source.

While in the hospital, he met Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Describing her as “marvelous” in his time of need, he said, “When I didn’t think I was going to walk again, she actually told people, ‘Obviously you don’t know Gerry Counihan.’ ”

As Counihan recovered, he received help from his co-workers, including a fellow tour guide who would come over at 6 a.m. each week to wash and fold his laundry.

After several months of rehabilitation, Counihan returned to the Capitol. Difficulties with his speech made leading tours a challenge, but an elevator-operator position opened up.

For Senate Sergeant at Arms Terry Gainer, hiring Counihan was an easy choice.

“I knew him from around the Hill, even from my Chief of Police days,” he said. “Gerry knows the members, he knows the institution and had a great reputation. … It was an opportunity for us to improve ourselves as an organization just being around this guy.”

Members also rallied to assist Counihan. McCain recalled that Counihan “really went through a tough time, and all of us kind of pitched in to try and help out.”

Also supportive was Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), a fellow former patient at the National Rehabilitation Hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage in December 2006.

“Rehabilitation is a tough road, and I commend Gerry for his persistence in overcoming many obstacles,” Johnson wrote in an email.

Counihan’s injuries still affect his speech, memory and motor skills, and he admits to missing his old job giving tours. But his interactions with lawmakers on the elevator brighten both his and their days.

Counihan recalled one evening when the Senate was in session until after midnight and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) asked him to hold the elevator.

“This reporter would not leave, and I said, ‘Look, they have a rule in Maine that says you can’t talk to somebody after midnight,’ ” he joked. “And the guy said, ‘Well, I didn’t know that.’ And Sen. Snowe was so impressed that she keeps telling me she wants to write a letter to my mom — who is in assisted living — to thank her son for that.”

Snowe spoke fondly of her encounters with Counihan, calling him “simply the best.”

“Many days I think Gerry is the most efficient part of the U.S. Senate,” she wrote in an email. He “has a great sense of humor, he keeps things running on time and takes care of us — especially when he closes the doors on pursuing press!”

Counihan has also gotten the stamp of approval by the U.S. Armed Forces after giving a lift to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan and future director of the CIA.

“I held the elevator for him and prevented the media from interviewing him because it was 10:30 at night,” Counihan said. “He came back four weeks later and gave me his coin of excellence and told me to show it to my supervisor.”

While the road has not always been smooth for him, Counihan’s optimism and work ethic have continued to shine.

“I’ve got to admit there have been times when we’ve been here until 1 in the morning, where I have really forced myself to smile,” he said. “But just because I’m tired, it’s not Sen. McCain’s or Sen. Bradley or Sen. Harkin’s fault that we’re here until 1 [a.m.]. They expect me to be friendly … and to give them a ride down, and I’m going to do that.”

As Counihan considers a possible career move to the Health and Human Services Department, co-workers expressed their appreciation for the dedicated employee.

“I’m going to miss Gerry. I think he’s a great guy,” Gainer said. “He’s been a real asset to the organization. He’s an example of someone who’s had a little bit of adversity, but he hasn’t let it slow him down at all.”

Daniel, Counihan’s tour guide supervisor, echoed the sentiment.

“He is an amazingly dedicated young man to the institution; not just the House and Senate, but just the institution,” he said. “He’s always been fully committed to working here and working with his colleagues.

“Gerry is just one of those remarkable people,” Daniel said.