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Published: Monday, 6/28/2010

Byrd held power, influence

BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE AND BLADE NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON — Robert C. Byrd served 51 years in the U.S. Senate, longer than anyone else, and with his six years in the House of Representatives, he was the longest-serving member of Congress.

But it was how he used that record tenure that made him a pillar of Capitol Hill — fighting for the primacy of the legislative branch of government and building, always with canny political skills, a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money.

Mr. Byrd died Monday. He was 92.

“America has lost a voice of principle and reason,” President Obama said.

Mr. Byrd held a number of Senate offices, including majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

But the post that gave him the most satisfaction was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, with its power of the purse.

“I want to be West Virginia's billion-dollar industry,” he proclaimed in 1990 — a goal he surpassed at least three times over.

He had been increasingly frail of late, using a wheelchair, and had been hospitalized four times in the past two years.

“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America,” said the state's other U.S. senator, Jay Rockefeller.

“But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain,” said Mr. Rockefeller, a Democrat.

On Nov. 18, Mr. Byrd became the longest-serving member of Congress in history, breaking the record of the late Democrat Carl Hayden of Arizona.

He had become the longest-serving U.S. senator in history in June, 2006, surpassing the late Strom Thurmond.

From the time in 1946 that he stepped away from a career as a meat cutter to run for a seat in West Virginia's House of Delegates, he never lost an election — 15 in all.

To say that Mr. Byrd's name is etched in West Virginia history would be a gross understatement. Roads, schools, research facilities, government buildings, health-care institutions, and a variety of other landmarks across West Virginia — at least 45 by one accounting — bear his name.

In the Senate, Mr. Byrd was renowned for rhetorical flourish, command of the rules, keen attention to detail, knowledge of and devotion to the Constitution (a copy of which he carried at all times), and fierce principle.

He cast more than 18,600 votes and had an attendance record of 97 percent.

Mr. Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., one of five children of Cornelius Calvin Sale and Ada Mae Kirby.

His mother died in an influenza epidemic the following year. On her deathbed, she asked that the boy be sent to live with his father's sister, Vlurma Byrd, and her husband, Titus Dalton Byrd.

They renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd and soon moved to West Virginia. He was the only child in the home. Titus was a coal miner who worked in numerous mines throughout southern West Virginia.

His parents were deeply religious, stern, and frugal, buying him books and school supplies rather than toys.

His high school English teacher said “there was never a Friday afternoon that that youngster didn't go home with his arms, and I mean both arms, loaded with library books. He was a great reader, and the books he took home were not assignments.”

He also learned to play the fiddle, a talent that later would endear him to voters.

After graduation in 1934, lacking the money for college, Mr. Byrd worked an assortment of jobs, including gas station attendant for $50 per month and produce boy in a coal company store.

In 1937, he married Erma, a coal miner's daughter.

In the early 1940s, Mr. Byrd applied for membership in the Ku Klux Klan and organized a 150-member Klan unit in Raleigh County, West Virginia, activity that he later described as the biggest mistake of his life.

The dalliance with the Klan would repeatedly be raised by political foes and other critics through Mr. Byrd's career.

During World War II, Mr. Byrd worked as a welder in shipyards in Baltimore and Tampa, returning to West Virginia and the coal company grocery to work as a meat cutter after the war.

In 1946, he won his first election, securing a seat in the House of Delegates, where he served two terms.

In 1950, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, where he served two years.

In 1952, he was elected to the first of three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He won his U.S. Senate seat in 1958.

In Washington, he set about trying to direct federal money, resources, and facilities to his home state.

“I believed that West Virginia had always been a neglected state as far as the federal government was concerned,” he said.

A lawmaker by day, Mr. Byrd became a student by night, studying law over a span of 10 years at American University in Washington.

In 1963 he became the first person to start and finish a law degree while serving as a member of Congress.

Mr. Byrd was a staunch conservative on many social issues. His opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — he spoke for more than 14 hours in a filibuster that sought to block enactment — rekindled allegations that he was a racist, as did his opposition to the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.



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