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West Virginia's coal country pays tribute to Byrd, who never forgot it

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2010; A09

WILLIAMSON, W.VA. -- There is no bronze statue of the legendary senator here. No historical plaque bearing his name. Here, in the secluded heart of West Virginia's coal country, the only monument to Robert C. Byrd lies on a creaky bookshelf, deep inside the Mingo County Clerk's Office.

Stacked in no particular order are white plastic election books whose green-edged pages of vote tallies tell the story of one man's lifelong dominance of West Virginia politics. The residents of this forgotten part of poor America, not far from where 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion this spring, stayed loyal to the senator who, they said, never forgot them.

They gave him more than 90 percent of their votes in 2006.

"There will never be nobody as good as Senator Byrd," County Commissioner David Baisden said as he drove his Jeep up a mountain road last year to the coal mine where he works as a part-time dispatcher. By last summer, with Byrd in ailing health, folks already were bracing to lose him. "He was an icon. They'd almost have to shut the mines down if he was coming, because people would come to see Senator Byrd."

Across West Virginia, Byrd solidified his political support not only by using his natural charisma -- he was known to campaign with a fiddle -- but also by bringing a bonanza of federal spending projects to his impoverished state. Long known as a champion of pork, Byrd in 51 years in the Senate (and decades on the Appropriations Committee, which he once chaired) funneled billions of dollars to the Mountain State.

"People accuse him of pork-bellying it all over here, but it was a positive thing. And he never showed any partiality to any part of the state," said John Fanary, who runs a hair salon in Sophia, the senator's home town.

As Byrd said during a 2001 Senate floor debate: "One man's pork is another man's job. Pork has been good investment in West Virginia. You can look around and see what I've done."

He often remarked that when he was first elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, the state had just four miles of divided highway. Today, highways cross about 37,000 miles. Byrd knew full well that people needed basic services to better their lives, John D. Rockefeller IV, his fellow West Virginia senator, once said, and he delivered.

"Twenty-five years ago, we were an isolated community, and that made it very difficult to get out of," said Michael Thornsbury, 53, a circuit judge in Williamson who was born and raised in Mingo County, a rural place of 28,000 near the border with Kentucky. "Has there been pork brought back to West Virginia? Yes. Has it been a long time coming? Absolutely. We're only halfway caught up now. And it has not been wasteful pork. It has been pork that has revitalized our economy."

In return for Byrd's largess, the state named more than 30 buildings, roads, schools and monuments in his honor. There's the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the Robert C. Byrd Expressway and the Robert C. Byrd Freeway. There's the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing, the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center and the Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Center.

There is a bronze statue of the senator, but it is housed in the State Capitol Rotunda in Charleston. If you stand beneath it, Byrd's hand points at your pockets.

"Everywhere you go in this state, every institution of higher education, every federal entity in this state have his stamp on them, whether they're named for him or not," said Raymond W. Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown.

Unlike elsewhere in the state, nothing in Williamson is named in Byrd's honor. "There are no monuments to Robert C. Byrd here, but it's been silent appreciation," Thornsbury said.

A crossroads for coal and rail, Williamson was among the state's few places where families had a steady wage. But a major flood in 1977 ravaged the town and it never recovered. The mountainous county around it is one of the nation's most impoverished areas, with a median household income of about $21,000.

"This is as depressed as I've ever seen," said longtime resident Stephanie Harvit, who runs a wine shop and small hotel downtown. "But Bob Byrd didn't want it to be that way. He tried with every bone in his body. . . . Everybody knew that he was going to do us right. He never disappointed Mingo County."

In the 1980s, he helped build Route 119, a four-lane federal highway connecting Williamson and Charleston. Suddenly, the commute from the mountains to the state's political center was greatly reduced.

When the highway opened in 1987, residents recalled, Byrd proudly spoke for 90 minutes at the groundbreaking ceremony.

"This infrastructure was got by a guy who dedicated his life to the state of West Virginia," Baisden said. "We felt like he was something special because he would come here. Sometimes in his speeches, he would call Mingo County home."

Gary Stepp, a local pilot and bail bondsman, took a reporter up in his two-seat Cessna Skyhawk last year to show what Byrd's federal pork has brought to Mingo County. A new highway and high school were under construction and a mountaintop mining site was being transformed into a golf course.

"I thought he'd shoot for the presidency," Stepp said. "I really did think he would. Just think of how many years he's been in public life. Ain't nobody gonna ever do it again."

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