By Mannix Porterfield
Allen Tackett was a lad of 13 the first time he laid eyes on a young politician with coal black hair and a sense of urgency in his first campaign for the U.S. Senate.
This was in 1958, when Byrd was stumping the hollows of Cabin Creek, famous for one other future luminary — a basketball wizard named Jerry West.
Fifteen years ago, the paths of Byrd and Tackett crossed again, the former, now the adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, and Byrd firmly ensconced as one of America’s top political leaders.
Byrd remembered the youngster whose father had worked the precincts on behalf of the Democratic Party in the hills around Cabin Creek, just outside Charleston.
“Byrd came through and stopped at our house,” Tackett recalled of his youthful brush with the political arena. “We did some rallies and I talked to him a few times.”
Tackett rekindled the old friendship with some heavy brass now on his lapels back in 1995 when he was named to head the National Guard.
“I’ve lost the best friend the Guard ever had,” he said, making no effort to conceal the sorrow in his voice, hours after Byrd died in a hospital just outside the nation’s capital.
“It’s unbelievable what he has done for the West Virginia National Guard. This is probably the hardest event I’ve had to go through other than my mom and dad dying. I was as close to Sen. Byrd as I was to my mom and dad. So, it’s been a tough day.”
Not only did Byrd pull the right strings to keep critical aircraft at the Guard’s disposal, but he routed more than $786 million worth of military construction to the state, Tackett pointed out.
“He supported my counter-drug program, supported the Joint Interagency Training and Education Center,” the adjutant said.
“Even more than that, he’s been a true friend to the National Guard nationwide. He’s done so many things over the years to make the National Guard strong and make sure we had the equipment that we need. He’s just been a heckuva guy. I don’t think there will ever be anybody that has that kind of power that Robert Byrd had.”
When Byrd helped dedicate a new Guard facility in Martinsburg, the adjutant recalled, he remembered his pledge on leaving as majority leader to anchor the appropriations committee and that he would bring $1 billion to West Virginia.
“Gen. Tackett came along and now it’s $2 billion,” he had quipped.
Tackett left no doubt he wouldn’t have hesitated to have Byrd in his top command echelon.
“That guy was the smartest guy I believe I have ever known in my life,” the general said.
“He had more wisdom and more knowledge and more vision than any man I’ve ever been associated with.”
Byrd always considered Tackett the best general since Hannibal, he said.
“I would say he would have been in the Hannibal frame himself,” the adjutant said.
“Anything that Robert Byrd would have done he would have been excellent at. He was a study, almost a professor, when it came to history and studying history. He was the kind of guy who didn’t make the same mistake twice. He learned from history. No matter what Robert C. Byrd would have decided to do in his life, he would have been successful.”
Tackett’s voice grew taut as he sized up his feelings for the late senator.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve lost until you lose it,” he said.
“I think the people of West Virginia will find out Sen. Byrd was the best friend we ever had.”
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