At memorial service, West Virginia says farewell to 'Big Daddy' Robert C. Byrd

Friends, family and peers gather to say farewell to Sen. Robert Byrd at a funeral service in Arlington.
By Ann Gerhart and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 3, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Robert Carlyle Byrd fought his way out of coal towns and taught himself how to butcher and how to orate and how to bring billions to his poor mountain state. Its people sent him to speak for them in Washington for more than half a century, and he fought off the end of his life to continue to serve them.

To plenty of people, the Democratic senator, who died Monday at 92, seemed a bit of a windbag, an old man with a pompadour who clung to florid speech and antiquarian ideas. But he was "Big Daddy" to West Virginians, and when he came home to them in a casket Friday, thousands showed their gratitude in silent tribute.

They hustled in after their night shifts, pulling caps from their heads and adjusting their scrubs as they approached the center of the gold-domed Capitol, where Byrd lay in state. And they squinted into the brilliant afternoon sunshine as they settled onto every inch of the Capitol's front lawn to await a memorial service celebrating Byrd's life. Many had personal tales: He had played his fiddle for them in their kitchen; he had helped get their Social Security payments straightened out. Children in sundresses and shorts ran about waving small flags, darting between men and women in military fatigues.

Byrd always insisted that he had served with presidents, not under, and two of them came to praise him, with the rest of America's top elected leadership, on the Capitol steps. Both President Obama and former president Bill Clinton said they read Byrd's history of the Senate before they ventured a discussion with the man who was dogged in his determination to preserve the most arcane of that legislative body's rules.

Clinton defended that stubborness Friday.

"He knew people who were elected to represent states and regions and political philosophies were flesh-and-blood people, which means they would never be perfect," said the former president. "He knew they were subject to passion and anger. And when you make a decision that's important, when you're mad, there's about an 80 percent chance you'll make a mistake. And that's why he thought the rules and the institution and the Constitution were so important."

Delivering the eulogy, Obama compared Byrd to the pocket Constitution the senator carried with him always and gave to many others.

"As I reflect on the full sweep of his 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice," Obama said. He "possessed that quintessential American quality, and that is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen. A capacity to be made more perfect."

In two hours of remarks, there were plenty of tales of Byrd winning his legislative argument with methods other than quoting Cicero or Shakespeare. When Vice President Biden voted against him on a mining issue, Byrd, then the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, circled Biden's name in red on the roll call, framed it and screwed it into the ornate door frame of his office. "So every single senator coming to see him would walk out, and at eye height, they'd see Biden circled in red and know darn well they better not vote against Robert C. Byrd, ever," Biden said, to much laughter and applause.

His friends recalled Byrd's devotion to work and family, his love of reading and facts, and his spirited defense of his home state, which has more than 50 buildings named for either the senator or his wife, Erma. His capacity for pork-barreling billions into buildings, roads and federal offices was noted with some ruefulness. But, said Vicki Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Byrd "not only changed the landscape and so many lives here, he touched souls. People knew without being told that he was on their side."

And those people "from the hills and hollows of West Virginia" provided Byrd his greatest education, said Clinton, directly addressing the senator's leadership in the 1940s in the Ku Klux Klan, which Byrd long ago renounced.

He noted that the state has sent a disproportionate number of soldiers to every conflict since the Revolutionary War, and "the family feeling; the clan loyalty; the fanatic independence; the desire for a hand up, not a hand out; the willingness to fight when put into a corner -- that has often got the people from whom Senator Byrd and I sprang in trouble, because we didn't keep learning and growing and understanding that all the African Americans who have been left out and left down and lived for going to church and lived to see their kids get a better deal, and have their children sign up for the military when they're needed, they're just like we are; that all the Irish Catholics, the Scotch-Irish used to fight, everybody, the Italian immigrants, the people from Latin America who have come to our shores, the people from all over the world, everybody who's ever been let down and left out and ignored, and abused, or who's got a terrible family story, we are all alike. That is the real education Robert Byrd got, and he lived it every day of his life in the United States Senate to make America a better, stronger place."

The soldiers who bore the rose-covered casket down the marble steps to the tolling of a single bell carried it back up to a fully orchestrated arrangement of "Take Me Home, Country Roads," the state's unofficial anthem, penned, appropriately enough, at the table of a Georgetown home. Byrd will be buried Tuesday in Columbia Gardens Cemetery in Arlington County, beside his wife.

"He wore that Mountain State spirit on his sleeve," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said. "No one, no one, can replace our senator. No one can fill his shoes. Senator Byrd, you've toiled and triumphed on behalf of your beloved Mountain State, and now your time to rest has come."

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