By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; A03
Robert C. Byrd was known for many things -- his mastery of Senate rules, his oratorical skills, his ability to quote long passages of poetry from memory. At one time, he was apparently also considered quite the looker. "If you ever decide you've had enough of the Senate (which would be the country's loss) you can always model men's wear for Brooks Brothers," one female admirer wrote Byrd in April 1978. "What a super model you'd make."
Byrd's correspondent was none other than Abigail "Dear Abby" Van Buren, who wrote to Byrd, then 61, to compliment his "perfectly stunning" photograph in Time magazine.
The Dear Abby mash note is one of thousands of letters, photographs and other memorabilia that fill drawers and closets and filing cabinets in Byrd's cluttered office in the Hart Senate Office Building and his offices on the first and second floor of the Capitol. In the coming days, his staff will embark on the huge task of sorting through it all to archive what is one of the largest collections in congressional history.
Staffers sifting through the files have unearthed a country-music set list from Byrd's 1977 recording session at the Library of Congress (he was an accomplished fiddler); his countless drafts of legislation; floor speeches; videocassettes; recipes from his late wife, Erma; and mementos from every hollow of West Virginia.
By law, aides have just two months to close the office of a senator who resigns or dies in office. On the same day West Virginia's attorney general cleared the way for a special election in November to replace Byrd, the senator's staff received instructions from the secretary of the Senate and sergeant at arms laying out every detail of clearing out his things, including how to scan and save papers, close state offices, dispose of the office's potted plants and determine what gets shipped to West Virginia.
"It's a pretty big process," said Senate Archivist Karen D. Paul. "We've developed checklists to help manage aspects of this. It isn't like 30 years ago when people could just put papers in a box and just ship it off."
Byrd's office declined to comment, citing the emotional toll on the senator's family and staff in the past 10 days. But Capitol Hill staffers familiar with the process of closing congressional offices describe a grueling 60 days packed with memories of their boss, and uncertainty about their future.
"You're dismantling a lifetime of work," said Ray Smock, a former House historian. "You could be working very hard, and doing very well in the course of moving things around, and all of a sudden you come across a photograph and you'll pause and start to look at it, and you'll start to reflect and you're overwhelmed with emotion."
As House historian, Smock helped close several offices in the 1980s and 1990s. He is the executive director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which the senator established to house his records. A four-member staff has already amassed 800 cubic feet of boxes and anticipates another 2,000 cubic feet to arrive by September.
Smock's favorite items in the collection are Byrd's books and the handwritten notes he took in writing a history of the Roman Senate.
"You can see as he underlined every passage, it's a wavy line, it's not a straight line," Smock said. "His hand line is meticulous but shaky and wavy. By looking at the document, you can feel him poring over these notes. Sometimes he would write in the margins, 'Memorize this.' "
Those notes and Byrd's other belongings will become source material for historians. There is a growing movement among academics to preserve the work of House and Senate lawmakers, an effort that lacks the federal funding provided to former presidents. Few senators aside from Byrd, Edward M. Kennedy, John Glenn and Robert J. Dole established plans for their archives, though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), inspired by Byrd's center, last year announced plans to house his archives at the University of Louisville.
Byrd staffers first will identify the office's volumes of hearings, law books and other records that can be discarded unless personally tied to the senator. Most of the office furniture stays behind for the next occupant, unless Byrd owned it. Archiving photographs will take much of the time.
"Many don't have captions," Smock said. " 'Who's that in that picture?' we'll ask. Hopefully somebody on the staff knows. It's a painstaking, memory-driven process."
Byrd's unrivaled tenure means "there's no one person who's been on his staff that long to be a personal institutional memory," said David Hostetter, the Byrd Center's program director.
The senator's insistence on keeping copies of every document sent or received by his office will add to the workload. Former press secretary Mike Willard recalled Byrd's particular concern for letters sent to constituents.
"He'd say, 'This may be the only letter that a person gets from a U.S. senator. I want it to be perfect.' "