The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 2, 2010

Alumni group remembers Byrd as politician, friend

Sarah Plummer
Register-Herald Reporter

— Members of the Mark Twain High School Alumni Association remember Robert C. Byrd for his lifelong dedication to education and his concern for citizens from his hometown community of Stotesbury throughout his tenure as senator.

Kathryne Light Williams, class of 1940, has the alumni’s only commencement program from Mark Twain’s 1934 graduation. Byrd, then valedictorian, spoke at the event on “West Virginia’s Place in Education in the United States.” Even then, the future senator was dedicated to his state and to education. 

Williams said Byrd immediately got a job as a butcher at the Stotesbury Company Store where Charlie Farthing taught him to cut meat. Williams said Byrd named his daughter Mona after Farthing’s daughter as a tribute to the man who taught him the butcher’s trade.

Others also remember Byrd’s early years in school. Hilda Barker Keatley, class of 1940, said she noticed “as a student he was always very quiet and very studious.”

Anne Brochick, who taught seventh grade at Mark Twain, remembered Byrd as a student in her article for the alumni association. He always left the school “with arms loaded with assignments,” Brochick wrote, he was an “avid reader,” which led to his later belief that “informed citizenry can only come through free schools.”

When Byrd spoke at his 1993 high school reunion, he honored Mark Twain’s teachers: “A vital element in our shared uniqueness” Byrd said, “is the impress on our very souls made by our passage through Mark Twain High School. There, under the tutelage of an array of men and women — our teachers and principal — we imbibed so sweet a nectar of culture and values, of faith and discipline, that we are set apart, even if in some small ways, from all others.”

Former state Sen. Tracy Hylton, class of 1940, knew him in later years and remembered him as a smart and humble man who enjoyed life. During Hylton’s campaign years, Byrd would accompany him in his vehicle.

“He got his law degree by going to school at night while he was a senator,” Hylton said, recalling the same determination and work ethic that led a much younger Byrd to walk all the way to Helen to work pumping gas.

Besides the late senator’s appreciation and dedication to education and good values, these four alumni knew Byrd to be a “friend before a politician,” as Keatley put it. When Keatley’s son was in Vietnam, there was a period of time when he was ill and she was unable to get in contact with him. Byrd, she said, was constantly in touch with her about her son and was instrumental in finding his location and gaining contact. “I was so grateful for that,” she said.

Kathryn Williams noted Byrd always remembered to call her mother, who was once bookkeeper at the Stotesbury Company Store, every New Year’s Day without fail.

Alumni association president Sandy Blevins, class of 1965, talked about what a help Byrd was to her family. When her father died in 1970, Byrd was personally involved and instrumental in seeing that her mother received black lung benefits. 

Most who grew up with the late senator can tell stories of how he personally reached out, made contact and looked after those from the region. For those who remember Byrd playing violin in the high school orchestra or percussion in concert band, there is no doubt in their minds that, as Hylton said, “history will show that he has been an outstanding senator.”