Speak Your Piece: Byrd Watching

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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.[imgcontainer left] [img:Byrd340.jpg] 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).[imgcontainer left] [img:Byrdgasstation.jpg] 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.

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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.

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