Senator Robert C. Byrd rose from a humble up-bringing in the coal
fields of southern West
being third in line to the President.
In the 55 years he’s served
in Congress, Byrd often referenced his child hood during interviews and speeches,
recalling his hardscrabble youth.
“Robert Byrd, that little
boy who walked those four miles, three miles up Wolf Creek Hollow,” Byrd said
in one speech. “And back up on a ridge
to a two room school house.”
“And thank God for those two
room school houses. Let me tell you they
have produced many, many scholars,” Byrd added.
When he was a child, Byrd
learned to play the fiddle. By age 14 he
won a church fiddling contest.
In 1978 Byrd recorded the
album “Robert C. Byrd Mountain Fiddler” and performed on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville, TN. In the fall
of 1979 he appeared twice on the popular TV show “Hee Haw.”
Byrd’s fiddling also helped
him stand out in his early campaigns. Raymond Smock, Director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University, says Byrd was advised by another politician early in his political
career to use the fiddle to distinguish himself.
said make your fiddle case your briefcase and carry that wherever you go,”
Smock said. “And he did that. And he would give a speech sometimes he’d
play the fiddle, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
Whether Byrd played or not,
Smock said Byrd always had his fiddle case and people knew him for that.
Byrd’s wife of nearly 69
years, Erma, was his constant companion and closest confidant. They both graduated from Mark Twain High School in Raleigh County. They
married in 1937.
“Well, Erma was a coal
miner’s daughter,” Byrd said during a 2006 interview shortly after her death. “One of my dreams that I wanted to have come
true was to have Erma for my wife. We
went to school together. And she had
such good qualities and she was beautiful.”
Mrs. Byrd was usually by his
side at events in West
Byrd often mentioned her in his speeches.
At the time of Mrs. Byrd’s
death Senator Byrd was running for his ninth consecutive Senate term. In June of that year he became the longest
serving senator in U-S history.
“I hadn’t thought much about
it,” Byrd said at the time. “Records are
made to be broken and somebody will break that on. And them someone will break that one.”
Senator Byrd was not a
native West Virginian. He was born
Cornelius Calvin Sale Junior Nov. 20, 1917 in North Wilkesboro, NC.
Byrd’s birth mother died of
influenza the following year. Byrd’s
father worked in a furniture factory and had four other children to take care
of. So Byrd’s aunt and uncle adopted him
and brought him to West
Virginia. They renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd.
Byrd had a series of jobs
after graduating high school as a gas station attendant, grocery store produce
boy and meat cutter.
From 1943 until 1945 during
World War two Byrd worked as a welder in the shipyards of Baltimore, MD, and Tampa, FL.
He returned to West Virginia after the war and in 1946, at the age of 30, was
elected to the state House of Delegates.
Byrd served in the
legislature until 1952 when he was elected to the U.S. House of
In 1958 Byrd won a seat in
the U.S. Senate and over the next 50 years he filled more leadership posts than
any other senator in U.S. history.
In 1988, after serving as
Majority Leader for the second time, Byrd announced he would Chair the Senate
Appropriations Committee. He vowed to
get more Federal money for West Virginia.
want it said that Robert Byrd went to Washington for quite a number of years and he didn’t do
anything while he was there,” he said about the decision.
“They can’t say that,
because I’ve helped to bring roads, I’ve helped to bring research
facilities; I’ve helped to bring health
Steering Federal money to West Virginia was a hallmark of Byrd’s career. In 1994 the group Citizens Against Government
Waste gave Byrd the ‘King of the Road’ Award for the $100 million of
highway money he brought to the state.
Roads were one of Byrd’s
priorities. During a 2006 interview Byrd
recalled the extremely poor condition West Virginia roads were in when he first went to Washington.
remember when you had just one little strip of, macadamized strip of road and
if you happened to pass another car you’d have to get off of, two wheels have
to get off the macadamized strip. When
it came to a curve they had to blow the horn,” Byrd said.
Byrd saw road building as a
highway to economic success, Smock said
“We are a
motorized culture and if you don’t have roads you can’t build industry, you
can’t get people from place to place,” Smock said. “And so he understood that early on.”
Smock said Byrd was proud he
was able to funnel billions of dollars into the state for roads and
infrastructure. It’s a talent that
earned him the nickname ‘King of Pork.’
Byrd also helped dozens of
Federal Agencies get new buildings and training facilities in West Virginia, including the F-B-I National Crime Information
Center near Clarksburg and in the Eastern Panhandle two U.S. Coast Guard
facilities, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection training center, and the Bureau
of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.
Smock said in a way, Byrd
was ahead of his time.
of course it’s more profitable and actually reasonable to do that in an age of
computers and instant communication,” Smock said.
“Diversifying the government
out of Washington is also not a bad idea in these days of
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife National Conservation Training Center near Shepherdstown is on the long list of Byrd’s
so-called pork barrel projects.
In January 2000 the training
center hosted an historic Middle
East peace summit between Israel and Syria which was attended by former President Bill
Rick Lemmon is now retired
but was the center’s director at the time.
Lemon said anything
associated with Senator Byrd is often unfairly labeled a boondoggle for West Virginia.
“I can’t tell you how many
people that came up to me during the first year of operation and said ‘I was
one of the people that just thought we were pouring a bunch of money into West
Virginia, now that I see this place I couldn’t be a bigger supporter,’” Lemon
Throughout the 1980’s and
90’s Senator Byrd worked on getting money for clean coal technology. Smock said the Senator was an early champion
of coal miners, pushing for black lung and mine safety legislation.
always proud of his roots and his origins in the coal fields of West Virginia,” Smock said.
Byrd’s legacy includes some
decisions he wasn’t proud of. In the
early 1940’s he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Many times Byrd apologized for his
involvement in the Klan and said he let his membership expire after a
Byrd also spoke out against
integrating the military, he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and in
1967 he opposed Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first Black Supreme
James Tolbert of Charles
Town has been active in Civil Rights since the 1950’s and was president of the WV
NAACP chapter for 21 years.
“At that particular point I
thought that he didn’t understand race and of course what I knew about him is
what I’d read that he had been in the Ku Klux Klan and I had thought that his
influences of the Ku Klux Klan made him react towards Blacks and make such
statements as he had,” Tolbert said.
Ultimately Tolbert supported
Byrd and points out that Byrd was rated favorably by the NAACP during the last
10 years of his career.
Byrd’s willingness to
apologize and respond to complaints worked in his favor, Tolbert said
“I remember one time he made
a statement about white niggers, and immediately I fired off a fax to him
telling how objectionable that was to African Americans,” Tolbert said.
“And he called me and told
me how sorry he was that he’d made a statement like that,” Tolbert said. “I think what Senator Byrd will do if he is
wrong he’ll tell you he’s wrong and Black people appreciate that.”
Byrd also regretted voting
for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 because it gave President Lyndon Johnson the
authority to escalate the Vietnam War.
That’s one reason Byrd was
so passionate in his opposition to the war in Iraq. Byrd often
used his oratory skills on the Senate floor to criticize the Bush
administration for attacking Iraq.
the space of two short years this reckless and arrogant administration has
initiated policies which may wreak disastrous consequences for years,” Byrd
said during one speech on the Senate floor.
Byrd’s speeches almost
always included a poem, a prayer and a history lesson. He has said that the two books that guided
him all the years he served in Congress are the Bible and the constitution.
Byrd was particularly proud
of getting a bill passed in 2004 recognizing Constitution Day. Byrd always kept a copy of the document with
Robert C. Byrd carried with
him each day he served in the Senate a love for his home state, devotion to his
beloved Erma, appreciation for history, and a deep faith in God.
“You know I feel that we
don’t come here just to live in this world. I think there’s a great design, a great mind behind, a supreme
intelligence back of all these things,” Byrd said in a 2006 interview.
“I think all this is well
thought out centuries and centuries eons ago. I have found that to be a lot of comfort being able to pray.”