Living Columns & Blogs

Seeing the state’s Capitol through the eyes of fourth-graders

When you live or work in Olympia, you get a little spoiled about seeing the state Legislative Building.

It’s sort of like how Western Washington residents sometimes take views of Mount Rainier for granted — although, let’s face it, that pretty mountain hides behind clouds more often than the Capitol dome.

Last week, I had a chance to help chaperone a field trip to the Capitol Campus.

I’ve been on the campus countless times, mostly for work assignments. I even worked for about two years for a small state agency that was on Capitol Campus.

It was fun to hear stories from the tour guides about the building’s facts and history. But the best part of it was watching a group of nearly 100 fourth-graders soak up the information and respond to it in a way that can be described only as pure educational magic.

Our tour guide, civic educator Peggy O’Keefe, challenged us to look for George Washington’s face or head throughout the day. It was sort of a take-off on “Where’s Waldo.”

It turns out, we found images of our state’s namesake all over the place on the campus. For example, it’s on curtains, on the governor’s chair in a conference room, on the floor in the Rotunda, and on the hands of a clock in the Supreme Court’s chamber in the Temple of Justice.

One of my son’s classmates described seeing George all over the place as “creepy.” My son said he thought it was “a little weird.” I must be showing my age because I thought all of those Georges were quite whimsical.

One of the first things we did on the tour was gently touch the nose on a larger-than-life George statue, which is a tradition of good luck, O’Keefe explained. It’s also why his nose is much brighter and shinier than the rest of the statue.

Some of the tidbits that O’Keefe shared:

During the tour, O’Keefe pointed out large gas fire pots in the Rotunda that I had never noticed before. She also told us that the Italian marble in the State Reception Room had pictures in it, and then she pointed out images of an elf and a parrot.

Throughout the day, the fourth-graders continued to look for images in the building’s marble walls and columns. I don’t think I’ll ever look at the building’s walls again without searching for hidden images.

After the tour, I called O’Keefe, who retired from the Olympia School District a few years ago. She taught English and social studies at Marshall Middle School, Olympia High School and Garfield Elementary School for about 25 years.

This is her fourth year working as a civic educator at the Capitol. She’s one of nine on staff, and they give guided tours that can last as long as three hours. The state also has a public tour service that is made up of volunteers.

She said one of the main points she always tries to drive home with students is that the building was built for them and all of the people of Washington.

“Our Capitol building — it’s just so majestic and awesome,” she said. “It’s for you to enjoy and use and share.”

O’Keefe said she’s always learning new things about the building and its history. Some of her colleagues have led tours for more than 20 years, she said.

So what’s her favorite part of the job?

“It’s just the enthusiasm and the wonder that the students bring to the building,” she said. “They’re just so ready to be enchanted, informed and to participate.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Legislative Building, you don’t have to chaperone a field trip. Free guided one-hour public tours of the building are offered seven days a week, hourly, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekends. For more information, go to and click on “Visit the Capitol Campus.”