State and national leaders, including President Obama, have paid tribute to the nation’s longest-serving senator.
But John B. “Jack” Van Dyke remembers a West Virginia House of Delegates candidate in a messy butcher’s apron — “a guy by the name of Robert C. Byrd.”
Van Dyke, now a retired college administrator living in Teays Valley, was once a very young Beckley reporter who interviewed Byrd during his first run for public office. Even after Van Dyke opted to work in education instead of journalism, he continued to follow a career that led that candidate from the butcher shop to being third in line for the presidency.
Van Dyke, who will be 86 in October, was in his early 20s when Byrd ran for the House of Delegates in 1946. Van Dyke had served in the Army for about 2 1/2 years and had been out about six of eight months. He was attending Beckley College and working part-time as a reporter at the former Beckley Post-Herald.
One day, the newspaper’s city editor came to Van Dyke, told him to grab a camera and go to Carolina Supermarket in Crab Orchard. A candidate for House of Delegates would be there.
“He said, ‘There’s a guy by the name of Robert C. Byrd. I want you to go interview him,’” Van Dyke recalled.
The young reporter walked into the grocery store, asked where he could find “Mr. Robert Byrd” and was sent to the meat counter.
“He was cutting up chicken and wearing a bloody apron,” Van Dyke said. “He had on a white cap like I had worn in the Army overseas, but in a different color. There was one black lock of hair showing.
“I told him who I was, and he said, ‘Give me five minutes.’ ... Then, I interviewed Robert Carlyle Byrd, a butcher at the store.”
He may not recall what Byrd said during that interview 65 years ago, but Van Dyke does remember the initial impression the fledgling reporter got of the fledgling politician.
“He was slender, with dark hair and somewhat intense,” Van Dyke said. “He wasn’t as vehement then. He was more subdued.
“But when I say ‘intense,’ I mean that he had a rather serious demeanor. He wasn’t saying, ‘I’m going to show these bums in Charleston,’ like some politicians do. He had just a serious demeanor, and he was serious about what he was attempting to do.”
“I remember his slogan: ‘Byrd by name. Byrd by nature. Let’s send Byrd to the Legislature.”
Van Dyke pursued an education career as Byrd’s political career advanced. He taught high school and later decided to teach at the college level.
Eventually, he would move into administrative positions that included three vice president posts. Van Dyke served on the West Virginia Board of Regents for a year until he retired from education.
But during those years, he said, he continued to follow Byrd’s career and even saved newspaper and magazine articles.
“I had followed Bob Byrd from the beginning of his political career,” Van Dyke said. “Being a West Virginian, I knew him, and I knew what he had accomplished for our state.”
That supermarket encounter would not be the last time his path would cross Byrd’s. Byrd, Van Dyke said, later became the “right-hand man” for Gov. Okey Patteson. During the 1950s, Van Dyke was teaching at Beckley College, and he brought a group of students to the Capitol. Byrd was with the governor.
In 1969, Van Dyke was the Beckley Kiwanis president, and he and his wife were sent to the organization’s international convention in Toronto. Byrd, he said, was the keynote speaker. At that time, one of Virginia’s U.S. senators was Harry F. Byrd Jr.
Van Dyke said the Kiwanis International’s president at that time was from Seattle, and he introduced Byrd as a Virginia senator. But Byrd did not correct this man. Van Dyke believed Byrd could see how a person from the West Coast could have confused the two senators.
West Virginians at the convention shook hands with Byrd on the podium. Van Dyke said he shook the senator’s hand and told him he met him in Crab Orchard several years before.
“He looked at me and said, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him, and he said, ‘That’s a good name.’
“I don’t think he remembered me from about 20 years before, when I was a little, scrawny, nondescript reporter.”
Years later, Van Dyke saw Byrd’s picture on the cover of Time magazine. Byrd was featured in a story about people the magazine dubbed the most powerful people in America. Van Dyke said he wrote Byrd to congratulate him on his success, and Byrd wrote back to thank him for his kind words.
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Van Dyke says he spends one to two hours online every night. Around 10 p.m. Sunday, he read that Byrd was seriously ill and had been taken to a hospital.
“At 11 o’clock, I said to my wife, ‘Sen. Byrd will probably be gone tomorrow,’” Van Dyke said. “At 7 a.m., I turned on CNN, and sure enough, he had died at 3 a.m.”
News of Byrd’s death was not unexpected, Van Dyke said. Byrd had been in a wheelchair and in poor health.
His wife of almost 70 years, Erma, had died in 2006, and that had taken a toll.
Byrd, Van Dyke said, is proof someone can become a much better person over time.
Van Dyke noted Byrd’s controversial past in the Ku Klux Klan and how he later admitted it was wrong. Byrd, he believes, became wiser with age and became accepting of minorities.
“The best way out of a hole is to stop digging,” Van Dyke said.
Byrd had also been criticized for “pork” projects in West Virginia, but those projects included highways, hospitals and federal buildings.
Part of the late senator’s legacy, Van Dyke said, could be showing young West Virginians anything is possible — even when the odds seem to be totally against them.
Byrd, a valedictorian at Mark Twain High School, had no money for college after graduation, Van Dyke noted. He not only became one of the most powerful people in the Senate, he also earned a law degree without having an undergraduate degree first. John F. Kennedy presented Byrd with that law degree.
“We may never — if ever — see the likes of Bob Byrd again,” he said. “He was one-of-a-kind. But he does prove that with motivation, desire and dedication, you can rise to the heights.”
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