Senator Byrd: A public servant with the 'courage to change'


The life story of West Virginia's Robert Carlyle Byrd was as improbable as the enormous influence he came to wield in representing his small, poverty-riddled state in the U.S. Senate for an unprecedented 52 years.

The youngest of five children, he was born in North Carolina in 1917 but, when his mother died the following year, he was sent to live in West Virginia with relatives. They changed his name from Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. to the one that has been affixed to dozens of schools, buildings, roads and institutions in acknowledgement of his clout.

Mr. Byrd worked as a gas station attendant, stock boy, welder and meat cutter after graduating from high school and before making his first run in 1946, winning a seat in the state House of Delegates. A largely self-educated, voracious reader, he attended law school while serving in Congress, completing his studies in 1963, five years after he joined the Senate. Mr. Byrd did not receive a college degree until 1994, when he earned his bachelor's in political science from Marshall University, although he had long before mastered the subject.

Mr. Byrd was a lifelong Democrat, but he did not fit easily in an ideological box. He was a champion for campaign finance reform because he wanted to put the highest offices in the nation within reach of "anyone with the brains, with the spirit, with the spine and with the desire to go for it." He did not care that his steadfast work to bring government funding home won him the title of "King of Pork" from Citizens Against Government Waste. His relentless mission was improving West Virginia.

In the early 1940s, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, an association he later described as the biggest mistake of his life. In 1964, when he staged a 14-hour filibuster in an attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act, and later when he challenged the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court, allegations of racism were rekindled.

President Barack Obama issued condolences this week in which he said of Mr. Byrd: "He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time."

Mr. Byrd earned the tribute that stands in the state Capitol in Charleston, a statue of him labeled "West Virginian of the 20th Century."

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