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Making Capitol memories

WASHINGTON, D.C. — "The little Italian girl from Klamath Falls" is still pinching herself.

"I have to pinch myself," says Frances Owens of working at the Senate Page School on Capitol Hill, where she's just steps away from the Capitol and has literally lived a life of history.

"I love being here. The history," she says, the gee-whiz still evident nearly 46 years after moving to work in Washington, D.C. Now 71, most of Owens' years have been spent teaching at the Senate Page School as an English instructor.

During her years, she's been an eyewitness to history  — Watergate and President Richard Nixon's resignation, attending several presidential, inaugurations, watching President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial from the Senate gallery, viewing the annual 4th of July fireworks display from the White House lawn, serving as part of the welcoming party when Nixon, in happier times, returned from China, and taking visitors on tours of the White House kitchen.

"Looking back," Owens admits, "I’m astonished at the unique opportunities we’ve had here. "

The daughter of Maira and Antonio Dal Broi, she was born at the Klamath Valley Hospital in Klamath Falls and attended Altamont Elementary School before graduating from Sacred Heart High School in 1964. After college at Gonzaga University, she taught at Klamath Union for one year, then two years in Salem before she and her husband, Richard, who moved to Klamath Falls from Prineville when they both were juniors, moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1971.

"We came here with the idea were going to be here four years," Owens says, adding with a laugh, "We were imitating Audrey Hepburn and, what's his name? (Albert Finney) in 'Two for the Road,' " a 1967 British comedy about a couple on a road trip.

She and her husband, a retired lawyer for the Office of International Affairs at the Department of Justice, are both 71. He negotiated international treaties. They have grown two sons, John-Anthony and Matthew.

"When my husband was chosen for the Justice Department Honors Program, we intended to stay for just four years but never left," she says.

She and her husband live in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. Because school usually begins at 6:15 a.m., "I leave home at 4 o'clock." If Senate proceedings begin at noon, students have four 50-minute classes before being escorted to the Capitol. If sessions begin earlier, the class time is shortened. "Their days are so unpredictable," Owens says, noting double days were held during the recent Senate recess to make up for class time lost during the all-night hearings.

For Owens, there's more to the job than the job.

"Part of the joy of my current job is discovering the rich history of the Capitol itself," says Owens. "Sometimes Oregon and the West are hidden in most unexpected corners. When the Senate historian gave our classes a Civil War-based tour of the Capitol, I learned who Edward Dickinson Baker was. Not only was he an important figure for Oregon but he was the only sitting member of Congress to die in war." Baker City and Baker County were named in honor of Baker, one of three Oregonians whose statue is in the Capitol building,

More recently, she says the Senate Curator discovered the landscape medallions in the Brumidi Corridor frescoes "were not just imaginary scenes, as always assumed, but were virtual copies of sketches made for the (1855-1861) Pacific Railroad Report. So now when I walk by Mount Baker, Coeur d’Alene and the Columbia (frescoes) I feel right at home."

Home is the Washington, D.C., area, but Owens hasn't lost her roots.

"I still identify as an Oregonian, and I make sure every one of my students pronounces the state 'Orygun,' " she chuckles, noting she keeps informed through an online subscription from the Herald and News in Klamath Falls. "I wept to read what they did with the Balsinger Building," a historic downtown building that was demolished in 2016. "I look back on Klamath Falls and I think, I left when I was so young."

Owens hasn't visited Klamath Falls since her mother's funeral in 2005, and her West Coast visits are infrequent. Her husband did visit friends as part of a trip to Portland last summer. (Her father died in 1969.)

Although her husband has retired, she has no plans to do the same.

"I haven't really thought about what I'd do when I retire. This job is so fantastic I can't imagine not doing it," Owens says, who hopes to see a page from the Klamath Basin. "I've always been waiting for that Klamath Falls page."

Frances Owens, who grew up in Klamath Falls, has taught for four decades at the Senate Page School on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Senate pages live and attend school in what used to be a funeral home, four blocks from the Capitol. Photo by Lee Juillerat