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A page in history: Dobyns-Bennett student among 30 U.S. Senate pages

Rick Wagner • Jun 15, 2020 at 9:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Dobyns-Bennett High School rising senior recently got a first-hand look at the operations of the federal government and office of a veteran Tennessee lawmaker.

And he did so on Capitol Hill during the times of the COVID-19 pandemic and presidential impeachment trial, all sure to be future fodder for the history books.

Nikolas Barnett, who turns 17 later this month, just finished up his time as a page for retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. Nikolas is the son of Kingsport Chamber of Commerce Executive Director of Government Relations & Workforce Development Lora Barnett and Phillip Barnett and has a younger brother, rising D-B freshman Mason.

“I honestly learned so much I can’t put it all in words,” Nikolas said Monday in a phone interview, adding that time management, patience with people and how to work in a professional work environment were among lessons learned. He was among 16 pages for the majority Republicans and 14 for the minority Democrats in the Senate.

Alexander, a one-time presidential hopeful, former U.S. secretary of education and former Tennessee governor, is the senior senator from the Volunteer State. Alexander is not seeking re-election in November after three six-year terms.

Because the spring session pages’ time in Washington was cut short by COVID-19, Nikolas said they didn’t get to have a formal meeting with Alexander, but he said incidental meetings with the senator went well.

“He was generally very quiet, but he was very nice to the pages,” Nikolas said.

Alexander, from Maryville, also is a former president of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Nikolas said he went to Washington around Jan. 26 to start his time as a page and was supposed to stay until June, with the formal end of the program June 5. However, he and the other 30 Senate pages for the spring term, all juniors, were sent home in mid-March because of the novel coronavirus. However, he and other pages kept taking their high school classes virtually from home through the page program. His mother said the pay for the work more than offset housing costs but that some expenses not necessarily covered included transportation, food and incidentals.

“They just sent us home because of coronavirus,” Nikolas said. The classes were basically the same ones he would have taken at D-B, including political science, U.S. history, English composition, literature, science and math, and he will get credit for them that transfers back to D-B.

During a sophomore government class, he said he saw a mention of the page program in his textbook and did some research, finding out Alexander’s website had an application portal for pages. He ended up being the only page from Tennessee for the spring term and said his guidance counselor told him he may have been the first one from D-B.

During his time in Washington, he and the other pages stayed in a dormitory-like building near the Hart Senate Office Building, awaking at 5 a.m., eating breakfast and starting classes in the basement at 6:15 a.m. until an hour before the Senate convened that day. He said pages got water for senators, ran questions from offices to the Senate and were on standby in the Cloak Room, especially during the impeachment hearings.

The pages also got to stand on the back wall of the Senate chambers during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address. On weekends and off time, the group took field trips, including one to the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute.

Nikolas plans to attend the University of South Carolina and major in international finance at the university’s international business school, adding that he hopes to return to Washington, D.C., for a college internship and seek a career involving international finance. 

“Working on the Hill would be a very special internship,” Nikolas said. 

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