By Kate Coil
For The Register-Herald
With the passing of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, local officials remembered Monday the senator’s political stature, leadership, deep friendship and, most of all, his concern and contributions to the people of West Virginia.
Mercer County Commissioner Joe Coburn has been in politics almost as long as Byrd and remembered more relaxed moments with the senator.
“I’ve been in politics a long time and I’ve been a friend of Sen. Byrd’s since 1952,” Coburn said. “I remember going up to Washington to see him. I remember him sitting here in the office, drinking a Pepsi-Cola and talking about growing up and his memories of being around Matoaka.”
Coburn also remembers Byrd’s contributions to the country.
“He’s been very good to Mercer County,” Coburn said. “It’s a sad loss and he was a wonderful man. There’s so many good things about him, you could fill up the paper.”
Mercer County Commissioner Karen Sarver Disibbio also remembered the senator’s service to the county.
“He’s going to be greatly missed in Mercer County and in West Virginia,” Disibbio said. “He’s represented us extremely well during all his time in Washington. We’re deeply saddened by his passing.”
Disibbio remembered Sen. Byrd coming to Princeton to discuss the renovation projects on Mercer Street.
“The last time I saw him was when he came to Princeton several years ago to the east end when we were having a meeting to discuss the revitalization project,” Disibbio said. “He was so vibrant and congenial. It was so wonderful to have him in our county.”
Former Bluefield Mayor Edwin Elliott recalled his long friendship with the senator, which began in 1964.
“I don’t agree with his politics, but I’ve known him and we’ve been good friends for 50 years,” Elliott said.
Elliott met Byrd at the restaurant in Sophia they both frequented, which became the pair’s favorite place to visit together throughout their friendship.
“We’d eat lunch in Sophia every time he’d visit this area,” Byrd said. “One Friday night in 1971, he called me and said he just had a hankering to visit his old homeplace and see his old friends. We ate lunch in Sophia and then went up to the Bluefield hospital to visit Judge Jarrett. Senator Byrd said, ‘I think that’s the last time I’ll see him, and Judge Jarrett died two days later.”
After visiting the hospital, the two men had supper and then Elliott invited Byrd to the Bluefield Orioles game at Bowen Field that night.
“They told him he could have any box he wanted and he chose the one in the front row,” Elliott remembered. “He stayed for the entire game before he went back to Beckley so he could get to Lewisburg and catch the train back to Washington.”
Even with the baseball game, Byrd still managed to make his Monday morning Senate meeting. Two pictures were taken of Byrd and Elliott at the game and given to them to remember the evening.
When Elliott was serving as mayor two years later, Byrd brought him a check for $30,000 to finish the funding of the Key Dam. Elliott corresponded with Byrd yearly and visited the senator for the last time during a trip to Washington D.C. five months ago.
“He was in a wheelchair and he said he wished he could stand so he could shake my hand,” Elliott said. “We talked for five minutes and before I left, he wished me the best of luck and said I was the only Republican he never had an argument or a fight with.”
Elliott will miss the good friendship of the senator most of all.
“He was such a good friend of mine,” he said.
Marc Meachum, director of the Bluefield Chamber of Commerce, said the state will miss Byrd’s influence, both inside and outside West Virginia’s borders.
“He was a tremendous ambassador for the state of West Virginia and we’re going to sorely miss the influence he had on Washington in helping West Virginia,” Meachum said. “It’s important to remember his legacy and his legacy is that of helping West Virginia. For that, he will be greatly and sorely missed.”
McDowell County Commissioner Gordon Lambert recalled seeing Senator Byrd, known for his fiddling skills, playing his violin as well as Byrd’s presence at the opening of the Northfork Post Office. He also remembered how the funding Byrd provided for the federal prison in the county has helped the local economy.
“It’s a tremendous loss to us,” Lambert said. “I remember when we flew up to Washington to see him and he helped set up the funding for the federal prison. With all he did for our county and our state, we were blessed to have him. There will never be another Byrd.”
Bluefield Mayor Linda Whalen remembered Byrd as the self-proclaimed “champion of the Constitution,” who urged both school children and his fellow senators to remember constitutional principles.
“Our country and our state has lost a great statesman,” Whalen said. “He was a great role model for his colleagues for upholding the Constitution. He’ll be missed in West Virginia.”
Byrd never shied away from his nickname, “the King of Pork,” which he earned by funneling federal money to West Virginia. Robert Farley, director of the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, said his desire to keep West Virginia well-funded is one of the reasons his position will be hard to fill.
“His loss is almost devastating to the state of West Virginia,” Farley said. “He’s been such a part of the state and through his powers in the senate. He’s been able to funnel a lot of money into the state, which will be surely missed. It’s going to take a while for anyone they put in his place to fill his shoes.”
McDowell County Clerk Don Hicks said Byrd affected not only the course of the nation but the world itself.
“It’s a horrible loss for McDowell County, West Virginia, the nation and the entire world,” Hicks said. “His actions and knowledge affected the entire world. He certainly will be missed. Knowing what all he’s done for West Virginia, the nation and the world, he can never be replaced. Our condolences go out to his family.”
Princeton Mayor Dewey Russell recalled how the senator never forgot his home state.
“I think he will be remembered by all he did for West Virginia,” Russell said. “He never forgot his roots.”
— Kate Coil is a reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.