By Mannix Porterfield
One can hardly drive any sizable stretch of road across West Virginia without seeing his name attached prominently.
And small wonder.
In his record-setting tenure as the longest-serving member of the Senate, political icon Robert C. Byrd ushered billions of dollars of federal money into his adopted state for projects, many of which bear his name.
Byrd was so adept at getting the bacon that critics often called him the “King of Pork,” a title he accepted with a laugh.
Three years ago, the North Carolina-born Byrd, raised in a coal camp near Beckley, died after struggling with health issues for several years.
Byrd had many loves, and first on his list was his wife, Erma.
Arguably, the U.S. Constitution came next, or perhaps it was the Bible. Maybe even bluegrass music, an avocation that he pursued going back to his youth when he played the fiddle in a pickup band.
“Sen. Byrd reminded members of Congress on a regular basis that the Constitution was a guiding light, and that members tearing down the institution in which we serve was sure to undermine the public’s trust in their own government,” Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said in a statement.
Perhaps no one was any closer to the senator than Rahall.
Soon after graduate work at George Washington University, he was hired as an aide to Byrd, sowing the seeds of a political career that began in 1977 in the first of his 18 terms as the 3rd District representative in Congress.
“Sen. Byrd could bring opposing forces together to do what was best for the people and what was right for the nation,” Rahall said.
“His experience, his understanding of history and his vision for the future are sorely missed in this divided Congress, but the senator left behind an inspiring example for the rest of us to try to emulate. The good senator’s legacy is more important than ever in the Congress, an institution in which he put his full faith and great hopes for the American people.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said it was “an honor and a privilege” to work with Byrd over the years, “and I witnessed first-hand his leadership, wisdom, enthusiasm and his unwavering love for West Virginia.”
“It’s hard to believe our beloved senator — a true West Virginian and dedicated American who believed in the Constitution of the United States of America with every fiber of his being — left us three years ago,” the governor said.
“He devoted his life’s work to helping the people of our great state. He championed for great causes and helped our state prosper. He was my friend, and, frankly, he treated everyone as a friend. I consider myself lucky to have known him and, as a fellow West Virginian, I’m forever indebted to him for all he did for our great state.”
Byrd’s past association with the Ku Klux Klan often was revived by his critics.
As a young man, he was a recruiter and ultimately rose to the rank of kleagle and exalted cyclops of the Klan unit in his hometown, and defended the organization in his 1958 race for the Senate.
Ultimately, he called his KKK role his “greatest mistake” and garnered a 100 percent favorable rating on issues by the NAACP, even though he had filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and voted against seating the first two black jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Byrd was the most popular vote-getter in West Virginia history, and left a legacy of federal projects from the southern coal towns to the two panhandles.
In fact, more than 50 buildings bear his or wife Erma’s name, along with the main artery in Beckley — renamed Robert C. Byrd Drive from the old Valley Drive.
Thousands poured into the state Capitol July 2, 2010, four days after the 92-year-old senator’s death, for a massive memorial ceremony honoring Byrd. Among luminaries sharing the speaker’s podium were President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton.
Byrd’s passing opened the gate for Joe Manchin to abandon his job as governor and follow in his path as a U.S. senator.
“Three years ago, we lost a pillar of the U.S. Senate, a beloved West Virginia statesman and unwavering guardian of the Constitution,” Manchin said Friday.
“His contributions and dedication to our state and this great nation inspired us all and his influence stretched far beyond West Virginia’s borders. I am incredibly honored to carry on his legacy in the Senate, and although his shoes can never be filled.”
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