Speak Your Piece: Byrd Watching

Robert Byrd is the longest-serving U.S. Senator. He grew up in — and lived through — times most of us can't imagine. And he's not leaving us without a fight.

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Even the New York Times spends time Byrd watching.

“Byrd watching” in Washington, D.C., these days consists of recording and responding to every move the 92-year-old Democrat Senator from West Virginia makes.  Whenever there’s a close vote in Congress — such as the Senate decision on the health care bill in late December — Democrats and Republicans alike hold their breath and watch for Sen. Robert C. Byrd. The New York Times in a story on December 23, 2009 described the arrival and attendance of Byrd to the Senate floor to vote as a “poignant ritual.”

The Times goes on to say, “It is his third appearance of the week, each prompted by a vital vote.” 

From all appearances Bob Byrd takes his job seriously despite his age and reportedly frail health. On June 12, 2006, Byrd became the longest-serving United States Senator in the history of the United States.  On November 18, 2009, Senator Byrd became the longest serving Member of Congress in our history. 

The Times implies a pretty dismal future for those of us who are looking forward to living rewarding lives at age of 92 or beyond.  Apparently, the journalist has shorter-term expectations. One of my grandmothers lived to 98 years old and the other past 94.

They both grew up during hard times in the Appalachian coalfields not far from where Robert Byrd lived as a young man. Their diets were completely wrong, according to Dr. Oz, and both had little medical attention.  I believe my grandmothers grew tired of the routine life here and being treated as elderly because they simply closed their eyes and moved on to the hereafter. There was nothing wrong with their mental capacity when they died and neither suffered physically.

Sen. Byrd arrives at the Senate these days in a wheel chair. So what?

Sen. Byrd’s own party members appear as surprised as the Republican opposition when the senior senator is on the job. The papers report that Sen. Byrd is greeted by a procession of colleagues: Harry Reid, patting his arm, Barbara Boxer, Democrat from California, applauding his entry. In late December, Byrd was entertained with standing ovations, waves, hugs and even tears for doing the job West Virginians have elected him to do for nine consecutive terms.   

Byrd has built an impressive vita, including the election by his colleagues to more leadership positions than any other senator in history. Perhaps this achievement is because of this unyielding desire and determination to do his duty.  Byrd once said, “What is sometimes considered to be the result of genius is more the result of persistence, perseverance and hard work.” 

He is now the President pro tempore, the second highest-ranking official in the United States Senate and the highest-ranking senator in the majority party.

Byrd’s own story, the classic American saga of struggle and achievement in the Appalachian coalfields, may help explain his physical and mental toughness.

Robert C.  Byrd was born on November 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to Cornelius and Ada Sale. They had four other children – three sons and a daughter.  Byrd started his life with the name of Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. Before his mother, Ada Sale, died of influenza on November 11, 1918, she asked her husband to give their sons to other family members to raise.  Baby Cornelius (Robert Byrd) was given to his mother’s sister and brother-in-law, Vlurma and Titus Byrd.  The Byrds adopted Cornelius and changed his name to Robert Carlyle Byrd.

In 1920, when Robert was about two years old, the Byrds moved to Bluefield in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, where his adoptive father got a job driving a wagon and team for a local brewery. Titus moved from job to job trying to make a better life for his family. He worked more than one job at a time – a coalminer and a farmer.  The family moved from town to town but eventually settled down in Mercer County, in the southern West Virginia town of Algonquin (later called Lamar).

Robert Byrd’s first job was at this gas station in Helen, West Virginia

Robert attended a two-room school, finishing four grades in two years. Studying by an oil lamp, he developed a thirst for knowledge at a very young age. When he was in the eighth grade he walked three miles to catch a bus and ride four more miles to school in Spanishburg. Robert graduated as valedictorian of his class of ’28 at Mark Twain High School in Stotesbury in 1934. 

In the middle of the Great Depression, following graduation from high school, Robert wanted to go on to college but there was no money. Eight months after graduation he finally found a job pumping gas in Helen four miles from his home. He started work in the middle of January, without a car and or a coat to wear. He borrowed a coat and walked or hitched a ride to work – many days walking eight miles to and from the gas station.

Awhile after, he was offered a job as produce boy for the Koppers Coal Company in his hometown of Stotesbury. Koppers owned the coal operations in Helen and Stotesbury.  This job would mean he no longer had far to walk to work.

In 1937, Robert married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James, a coal miner’s daughter. When they married he was making $75 a month. The couple lived in two upstairs rooms in a coal camp house where Mona, their first daughter, was born.

Robert was constantly looking for ways to make a better life for his family.  He picked up meat cutting skills by watching the meat cutters at the Koppers Coal Company store. He read everything he could get his hands on about the process. After acquiring the skill of meat cutting, he worked in supermarkets in Fayette and Raleigh counties and at night he took classes in welding at Beckley College.

When WWII broke out, Byrd worked as a welder building warships in the shipyards of Baltimore and Tampa.  In 1945, when the war was over, Robert Byrd brought his wife and two daughters back to Crab Orchard, West Virginia, to settle down. He returned to West Virginia with a new vision of what his home state and country could be.

It was during this time period in the ‘40s when a young, ambitious Byrd became affiliated with one of the most noted hate groups this nation has every witnessed – the Ku Klux Klan.   Byrd, in his memoir, recalls recruiting approximately 150 friends and associates to form a chapter in Crab Orchard.  It cost $10 to join and the local KKK collected $3. for the robe and hood.

Robert Byrd with Joe Biden at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Byrd acknowledges he lacked good judgment. He has said he viewed the Klan more as a fraternal group and as a way for a person with little financial means or power to launch a political career by connecting with doctors, lawyers, clergy and judges who had the money and power he lacked.

“It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation,” Byrd wrote when he was 87 years old. Byrd has seen and done a lot. He joined the filibuster of the 1964 civil rights act, and he campaigned for the first African American to be elected president.

In 1946, he made his first run for political office and was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.  In 1950 he finally began to pursue a college education by enrolling in classes at Morris Harvey College.  He was not able to attend college full time but took classes around his work schedule and duties as an elected official.

Byrd earned his law degree cum laude, from American University in Washington, D.C. in 1963 after ten years of study in night classes. 

A statue of Robert Byrd stands in the rotunda of the West Virginia state capitol

In the halls of Congress, Robert C.  Byrd is renowned for his knowledge and defense of the United States Constitution and the institution of the Senate.  Byrd “may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other,” according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Those words may apply in more ways than the Almanac intended.

On September 17, 1787 the United States Constitution was signed and agreed upon – the oldest and shortest written constitution of any major government in the world.

Benjamin Franklin was 81 years old when he signed the United States Constitution. He was suffering and because of his poor health, needed help to sign the Constitution.  As he signed the document, tears streamed down his face. Benjamin Franklin, the oldest framer to sign the Constitution, was in fragile health.  Although his body was deteriorating, his mind remained active. He was in constant pain from gout and gallstones. He could barely walk.  Franklin would enter the convention hall in a sedan chair carried by four prisoners from the Walnut Street jail in Philadelphia.

Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, declared in a speech on the Senate floor before the health care reform vote, “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote.” Many assumed he was talking about Robert C. Byrd.

Coburn’s plea may not be getting the full attention of the Man Upstairs; it will take more than a prayer from an opposing senator to move a mountain like Robert C. Byrd.

 

 

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