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Front row seat to history in making

One of the school assignments in the U.S. House of Representative's page program required Dan Grages to author his own legislation. The red-marked version he holds shows his first draft and his teacher's criticism, while the clean sheet is the final version. Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny

MONTEVIDEO -- There was no hiding the passion as congressmen debated issues ranging from a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout to offshore oil drilling.

The debates that flared during the previous session of Congress convinced Dan Grages that our government is hardly the stuffy, formal process he imagined from reading textbooks.

He should know: He witnessed it all firsthand on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served during the last school semester as a Capitol page.

"I found out how much more alive the government is,'' said Grages, 17, of his experience. He is back in the classroom in his junior year at the Montevideo Senior High School.

His classroom during the previous four months was the attic of the Library of Congress. Classes there began at 6 a.m., and Grages and the other male and female pages arrived dressed in uniforms: Navy blue blazers, white shirts, gray slacks and black shoes for the boys.

"As you can imagine, they have a lot of political science classes,'' said Grages of his unique education.

They had a lot of real-life experience to offer him too. School field trips included visits to the Smithsonian Institute, Harper's Ferry and the Gandhi Center.

His free time meant opportunities to travel the metro and take in the scenes of a major world capital.

When Congress was in session, Grages always had a front-row seat on the debate. All that was required was a good pair of (black) running shoes.

Since the program was started by Sen. Daniel Webster in 1829, pages have been serving as the carriers to hand-deliver documents, flags and other correspondence and materials.

Grages learned about the page program when he started looking at the possibility of applying to military academies for his post-high school studies.

Parents Arlan and Karla Grages encouraged him to apply for the page program.

The Speaker of the House appoints the pages, and by rule, 48 are allotted to the majority party and 24 to the minority party in Congress.

Karla Grages said her son's application was made through Rep. Collin Peterson's office, and it came with a word of caution. It initially didn't look as if there would be an available position.

But on short notice things changed, and a 4th of July visit to the nation's capital by the family became their opportunity to hand-deliver his application.

The program places a strong emphasis on academics, not to mention security, according to the page's parents. Their son could only travel when in the company of other pages, and always he carried a GPS-encrypted cell phone that would lead police to his rescue anywhere at the touch of a button.

Being a page is also a federal job, and he earned a salary that more than covered his room and board.

Most of all, it was a whirlwind of excitement for the student.

He was especially eager to take part in inauguration events before returning home. His inaugural experience began at the big concert, where he and fellow pages went with open eyes in hopes of seeing famous movie stars.

To his own surprise he saw instead Josh Preston, a classmate from Montevideo who had made the trip to Washington, D.C.

Well, maybe no movie stars, but Grages said he thought the best was yet to come. He had scored a "purple'' ticket to the inauguration, which should have guaranteed him one of the best viewing locations for the swearing-in ceremony.

After a few hours of standing in a line that never moved, Grages learned that there had been a technical malfunction and his purple ticket was going to get him nowhere.

No matter, he already had his glory. He had already been named "Mr. Page'' as part of a whimsical gesture by his fellow pages during their pre-graduation prom.

And soon after, his parents were in Washington to applaud as he and the other pages participated in the traditional and very formal graduation program.

"The only bad experience I had there was having to leave,'' he said.