When Comfort Tysen gives a tour, she puts her whole body into the job.
On some days, the longest-serving guide at the Texas State Capitol will ascend the building’s ornate cast-iron staircases hundreds of times, greeting many of the people she passes there by name.
When she speaks about the building’s height, her slight frame doubles in size as she stretches out her arms. (“It’s 302.64 feet,” she says. “I like to be exact.”) When leading blind visitors, she invites them all to jump together in the middle of the rotunda so they can feel the soaring space over their head. Tysen may be petite, but her presence is big, and she uses all of herself to communicate just how much she loves the Capitol.
“This job, the title should be ‘People to People,’” Tysen says early one morning in a corner on the Capitol’s fourth floor, far from the action of the legislative session playing out in the Senate and House of Representatives chambers below. “It’s about people, people who are having fun because they are on vacation. You see people smiling through their jaws. Happiness is contagious.”
Tysen’s voice is deep and warm, flavored with the accent of her childhood in Africa. While we talk, a woman’s singing floats from the open-air rotunda below. “This place is full of music,” Tysen says.
That Tysen came to be the longest-serving tour guide here is a story of good timing and determination. Born on the west coast of Africa, Tysen came to Texas in the 1980s to study computer technology at Texas State Technical College in Waco. In 1990, driven to push her education further, she moved to Austin and enrolled in business school at the University of Texas. She threw herself into learning and accrued over 200 hours of credit but did not get her degree. (A lifelong learner, she did go back to UT in 2021 and finished her bachelor’s degree).
One day in 2000, Tysen was looking for work. Waiting for the light to change at the intersection of 15th Street and Congress Avenue, she launched a conversation with a woman standing next to her.
“I said hello, and we started talking,” Tysen says. “I told her I was looking for a job. She said, ‘Guess what? There is a museum nearby called the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum that has an opening.’ As soon as she said Bob Bullock I told her, ‘I know that man! I took a picture with him!’”
Tysen walked straight to the museum and told the staff at the entry how’d she’d snapped a picture with the former lieutenant governor of Texas when she met him shortly before he died in 1999. “They could sense my sincerity and gave me an application,” she says. Within days, Tysen started her new job as a greeter at the museum. (Another former lieutenant governor, Gov. Greg Abbott, recently congratulated Tysen on her career as a tour guide.)
Ms. Comfort Tysen is the longest-serving tour guide in the Texas Capitol.
I was proud to visit with her last week and congratulate her on her distinguished career.
Her knowledge of Texas history and love for our great state truly shines through! pic.twitter.com/Supv5hpv3c
— Gov. Greg Abbott (@GovAbbott) April 19, 2023
After six months, Tysen’s supervisor suggested she apply to be a tour guide at the Capitol. “She told me that with my people skills and big laugh, I could do the job. She saw talent in me.” Tysen was hired, and in the more than 20 years since she has shaped herself into a virtuoso of knowledge about the building. She knows where the exterior’s Sunset Red Granite originated (Marble Falls and Oak Hill, southwest of Austin); how many doors there are (404); and that the doors’ ornately carved brass hinges are 8 inches tall and 8 inches wide. She even knows how many steps are in each staircase.
Tysen will never forget her first day on the job. “I was leading a big crowd,” she says. “I got to the basement and wanted to take them to the Capitol Extension, but I couldn’t find the door. Of course the door I needed was the last one. They were all happy though when we finally found it. They all clapped. What I learned is that they were willing to be patient with me. They saw that this lady is going to get better and better. I was not nervous. That is one of my strengths. I knew I was going to find it. You just have to keep going.”
Although Tysen knows her Capitol facts like they are “in her bloodstream,” her most endearing quality as a tour guide is her innate ability to connect with her visitors. “I love reaching out and touching people,” she says. “I am tiny, but my hands are longer than my size.”
She recalls a blind visitor once telling her, “I know I am blind, but you made me see.” And a boy in second grade once held her hand for the entire 30-minute tour, saying at the end, “If I were the president of the United States, I would give you 2000 dollars.”
Tysen’s fondness for the Capitol is so deep she has created her own names for her favorite spots. The South Foyer, which includes the main entrance and the spot where groups gather for the tours is called “Spring Break” because “when people walk in, that’s where their jaws drop at how pretty it is,” she says, “and they are happy like they are on spring break.” The star in the center of the rotunda she’s named “The Magic Point” because the acoustics there make your voice reverberate like an opera singer’s. And the Governor’s Public Reception Room? That is “The Sleeping Room.” When I asked her why, she just smiled.
Tysen’s lengthy career at the Capitol is rich with unforgettable moments. One such moment occurred when a young boy on her tour grew exasperated, Tysen explains: “He said, ‘Mommy, Daddy! This place is full of culture and history! Get me out of here!’ I’ll never forget that little boy. He’d had enough of all this beauty.”
Tysen, however, with her unrelenting enthusiasm, seems like she could never get enough.
Free guided tours of the Texas State Capitol take place every day, starting at 9:30 a.m. (Mon-Fri) and 12:30 p.m. (Sat-Sun). The last tour for each day departs at 3:30 p.m. More information can be found here.