Washington begins paying final respects to Robert Byrd

Friends, family and peers gather to say farewell to Sen. Robert Byrd at a funeral service in Arlington.
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 2:11 PM

Senators spent Thursday morning paying their final respects to the man they called their dean.

Family, friends, colleagues and admirers of Sen. Robert Byrd, the senate's longest serving member, began what will be a long goodbye honoring the man who was elected to the chamber in 1958 and served through 11 presidential administrations.

The hearse carrying Byrd's body pulled up to the Senate steps where former staffers stood. An honor guard then carried his flag-draped casket up the steps, moving slowly inside the chamber. The casket was placed on a catafalque, a raised platform where President Lincoln's casket once lay, on the very same floor where the senator had given thousands of speeches.

There his surviving family members, including daughters Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore and a number of grandchildren and great grandchildren, received condolences from his colleagues. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined many members of Congress in paying tribute to Byrd, including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

Senate chaplain Barry Black prayed privately with the family and members of the House and Senate on the floor before members of the public were allowed in the chamber. According to the text of Black's prayer, he said of Byrd, "We appreciate his wit and wisdom, his stories and music, as well as his indefatigable commitment to the principles of freedom that make America great."

It was a quiet memorial, without video cameras, that Byrd's family kept as private as possible.

Admirers waited for the opportunity to pay tribute from the public gallery, where they could look down to see Byrd's coffin lying in repose. It will be there until 4 p.m.

"He did so much," said Ruth Soto, an Alexandria woman, who never met Byrd but admired his work for the disabled. "All of the years he served, he deserves a statue."

Jon L. Hunter, who lives in Bethesda and was one of a handful of people who got in line at 7 a.m., said Byrd "championed everybody."

The public honor is the first part of a five-day farewell journey that will end Tuesday when the West Virginia senator is laid to rest in an Arlington cemetery beside his wife, his high school sweetheart Erma, who died in 2006 after 68 years of marriage. Byrd died Monday at 92.

The tribute on the Senate floor is a rare honor fitting for a man who abided by and tried to enforce the rules of the upper house and carried a worn copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket.

Byrd also held more leadership positions that any other senator, including majority whip and president pro tempore of the Senate.

A hearse will take the casket to Andrews Air Force Base for a flight to Charleston, W. Va., his beloved home state where he proudly channeled federal money and projects. There Byrd will be carried to the State Capitol in a procession that will include a bagpipe band, a horse-drawn carriage to transport the casket, a rider-less horse, local and state dignitaries and members of Byrd's family.

Among the dignitaries expected to speak at his memorial service Friday afternoon are President Obama, Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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