By Mannix Porterfield
From his humble start cutting meat in a hardscrabble West Virginia coal camp, Robert Carlisle Byrd rose to the pinnacle of political success to become the longest serving member of Congress.
And now, as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton reflected in President Lincoln’s passing, he belongs to the ages.
Across his beloved West Virginia, political leaders paid tribute Monday to the 92-year-old statesman who once stood on a wooden crate in a grocery store and practiced speeches on delivery men while wearing his stained butcher’s apron.
“Byrd by name, Byrd by nature, let’s send Byrd to the Legislature,” was his first battle cry.
Voters did just that, and his meteoric rise in West Virginia politics is the stuff of legends.
“Like all West Virginians, the news broke our hearts,” Gov. Joe Manchin reflected in a statement.
“Sen. Byrd was a fearless fighter for the constitution, his beloved state, and its great people. He made a significant mark as a member of Congress in both our state’s and nation’s history. His accomplishments and contributions will define history for eternity.”
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who began his political career as an intern in Byrd’s office, mused that pundits will seek to analyze Byrd’s life, but said they won’t come close to “capturing the enormity” of the man.
“I do not know how to begin trying to calculate his immense influence on the people of this nation and the people of West Virginia,” Rahall said.
“Perhaps because so much of what he gave to us is beyond measure — wisdom, reason, hope. We will not seek the likes of a Robert C. Byrd pass our way again.”
Like others, one of the first attributes that came to Rahall’s mind was Byrd’s fondness for the U.S. Constitution. He carried a copy in his pocket and once read a traffic cop the riot act about civil liberties when he pulled him over.
Politics was his life, and Byrd devoted his time and energy almost exclusively to that pursuit, eschewing the party life in which so many of his colleagues were swallowed up. His public service spanned two centuries, and not once in that time did even the hint of scandal ever cloud his illustrious career.
In his later years, Byrd emerged as a strong opponent of the war in Iraq. Decades earlier, he was just as adamant in supporting the war in Vietnam. Dissension was fine with Byrd, except when it came to burning the American flag as a means of protest. And then, like that old Merle Haggard tune, you were walking on his fighting side. He once told a reporter he’d like to personally punch flag desecrators in the nose.
“He was West Virginia’s greatest ally, her faithson, a source of tremendous pride, and our Big Daddy,” Rahall said.
The latter was a reference to a description Byrd issued in his last campaign, one that brought out his self-depracating humor. At one stop, he quipped that he was the oldest man there, adding, “I’m older than this building.”
“He was a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a constant source of inspiration,” Rahall said.
“And he was my friend.”
Rahall and wife Melinda followed the course of many close to Byrd by offering prayers on behalf, adding, “I know they will be comforted by knowing that he has joined his beloved Erma in Heaven.”
“Sen. Byrd was larger than life,” offered Sharon Rockefeller, wife of his partner in the Senate, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
“I will always remember him fondly as a warm, gentle man, whose passion for West Virginia touched and inspired us all. I have always admired Sen. Byrd’s great character and unfailing faith and my thoughts and prayers go out to his daughters, his family, and all of his friends and neighbors in West Virginia.”
Rockefeller said he considered it a privilege to serve with Byrd on behalf of West Virginia.
“I looked up to him,” he said. “I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone. He leaves a void that simply can never be filled. But I am lifted by the knowledge of his deep and abiding faith in God. I have joy in the thought of him reunited with his dear Erma, and I am proud knowing that his moving life story and legacy of service and love for West Virginia will live on.”
Michael Willard, a former Charleston bureau manager for United Press International, left wire service work to become Byrd’s press secretary initially, then as director of his leadership office, working for the senator from 1976 to 1983.
“He was, indeed, monumental in my life and in the lives of so many he touched,” Willard said.
“He was my mentor and friend, and, other than my Dad, the greatest influence on me as a person. He was a giant in my eyes, and I truly do not think there will be another like him.”
Byrd’s stature as an icon and elderly statesman wasn’t lost on members of the state Legislature, where his career began in the House of Delegates.
“Sen. Byrd’s passing is an unspeakable loss, first and foremost to West Virginia, but also to Congress and the country as a whole,” House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, said in a statement.
“He is a giant in the United States Senate, for his unmatched dedication to public service, incredible Constitutional scholarship, and above all, his reverence and respect for the democratic process. He is the most important public servant in West Virginia’s history — our state’s biggest advocate and protector. This is a very sad day for all West Virginians. His love for West Virginia, his knowledge of the Constitution, and his commitment to the Senate will never be matched.”
Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, called him “a giant among many” in government, saying he provided “great esteem” to his adopted state of West Virginia.
“He will be remembered not only for his great deeds, but for his greatness as a national leader and constitutional scholar,” Tomblin said.
“No man is indispensable, but in Sen. Byrd’s case, he is irreplaceable. His leadership, skill, knowledge and his unique personality will be missed not only by the nation, but by the state he loved. He was a true man of the people whose deeds will have an impact for generations to come.”
Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, considered Byrd the “greatest champion of the Constitution.”
“Even when he might have preferred to vote otherwise, he stuck with the oath that every elected leader of this state and country takes,” she said.
“That is the measure of a true servant. He loved and missed his ‘sweet, dear Erma,’ his wife and best friend very much after her death. When he spoke of her, it was clear that love and longing was genuine and deep. He always looked up and promised her that he would be with her soon. That day has come. And while we mourn our loss as a state and a nation, I can’t help but feel some joy as they celebrate their reunion in God’s Heaven.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, put Byrd in the footsteps of the political heavyweights from the past.
“He now walks with the giants of history — Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Roosevelt, Byrd!” he said.
“Words are woefully inadequate to describe the enormity of the life of Sen. Byrd and the impact which he has had upon our country and our state and its people. His life is a shining example to every child in this state as to what one can accomplish through hard work, faith in God, and service to others.”
Byrd became a sharp critic in recent months of the coal industry, but he drew words of praise from both union and management alike.
Back in 1969, noted United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, he championed the federal health and safety act, and convinced President Richard Nixon not to veto it.
Roberts figures Byrd had a strong hand in saving the lives of 29,000 miners, noting that 32,000 were killed on the job before the landmark bill was enacted, and 3,200 died since its approval.
“Since that time, Sen. Byrd consistently fought for additional protections for miners,” the UMWA leader said.
“He led the charge to secure the 1977 revisions to the 1969 act. He fought in 1992 to continue health care benefits for mining families and many times since then to secure funding, so that today, 100,000 UMWA members are still getting benefits. He relentlessly pushed for answers in the Aracoma and Sago disasters to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. And he fought for enhanced black lung benefits his entire life.”
“All of us from the coalfields have lost our best friend in Robert C. Byrd. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.”
Condolences were expressed by Massey Energy, which said, “He will be remembered as a tenured and dedicated public servant.”
The UMWA’s international vice president, House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said miners owe Byrd “a huge debt of gratitude.”
“As a legislator, I have great admiration for his fight to ensure that mine safety regulations were both thorough and properly enforced,” he said.
“Sen. Byrd was the best friend the coal miner has ever had.”
West Virginia Republican Chairman Doug McKinney considered the senator’s passing “a loss for all West Virginians.”
“Sen. Byrd’s life story, as much as it is a chronicling of his personal achievements, is no less the history of West Virginia itself,” he said.
“For more than 50 years, he battled in the name of the U.S. Constitution against political friend and foe alike, always remaining true to his faith, friends, family, while working to build a better future for his state and his country. Never forgetting his humble beginnings among the coalfields and impoverishment of southern West Virginia, Sen. Byrd carried with him a tradition of common sense principles and love for his fellow man. We differed with Sen. Byrd on many principles but we never for a second questioned his integrity and his love for West Virginia.”
State Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio called it “a sad day for all of us in West Virginia.”
“This is not only a devastating loss for West Virginia but a devastating loss for our nation,” Puccio said.
“There is not enough time in our day to start to talk about all of the tremendous achievements that this icon was able to accomplish for our people, but knowing Sen. Byrd he would expect us to continue his work to make West Virginia, and all of America, a better place to live. Sen. Byrd is one of the main reasons West Virginia is know as ‘Almost Heaven.’”
House Republican Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, characterized Byrd as “a towering figure who had a deep love for our state.”
“While West Virginians hold varying views on the issues we face, we all agree that, for more than a half century, Robert Byrd played a key role in the national debate and was a passionate advocate for his strongly held views and beliefs,” he said.
“All West Virginians join together today in expressing our appreciation for his public service and our sincere sympathy at his passing.”
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., termed the late senator “an icon” and said West Virginians share the loss of “a beloved son who was woven into the very fabric of our state.”
“Sen. Byrd’s mastery of the Senate will be remembered for the ages, but those who knew him best realize his legacy will be one of love for the West Virginians he served for nearly 57 years. Whether he is remembered as the young man who played the fiddle or the elder statesman that carried a copy of the Constitution in the pocket next to his heart, Robert Byrd touched the lives of countless West Virginians. His service to West Virginia and dedication to our nation’s democracy set an example to which generations can expire.”
Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, relished the time he spent with Byrd at a dedication ceremony in Beckley a few years ago, saying their meeting “made a lasting impression on me that will remain as long as I walk this old world.”
“Truly an institution and to think it all started right here in Raleigh County,” he said.
“His life was so much bigger than West Virginia. He was a champion of our constitution and had the personal fortitude to change his own beliefs over time and the political might to change public policy. He will be sadly missed. While his health had faded as of late, I hope he is remembered for his years of service and what he has done not only for the great state of West Virginia, but for this entire nation.”
Byrd came in for praise from the Humane Society of the United States over his concern on behalf of mistreated animals.
Not only did Byrd use his oratory and contacts to further animal protection but in recent years unleashed a stinging rebuke on the Senate floor of NFL quarterback Michael Vick in a celebrated dog-fighting criminal case, terming the activity “barbaric.”
“He condemned the increasingly barbaric treatment of animals in an industrialized agriculture and spoke of a Christian responsibility to be decent and merciful to all of God’s creatures,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of this great champion and friend of animals.”
Two years ago, the society presented Byrd with its highest honor — the Joseph Wood Krutch Medal for his efforts on behalf of animal welfare.
Words of praise also emanated from the American Association of Retired Persons in West Virginia for his work on behalf of retirees.
“For more than a half century, Sen. Byrd passionately fought in the U.S. Senate on behalf of all older Americans to protect workers and retain the integrity and stability of the Social Security system, and to ensure that all Americans have access to decent and affordable health care coverage,” said state director Gaylene Miller.
“Sen. Byrd always sought opportunities where he could be helpful to his native state and its people. His passing leaves an indelible void in the hearts of all of the constituents he served.”