They're older now and their power has eroded, but on a soft spring day near a much-loved mountain the political, social and familial clan that once dominated Virginia gathered to safeguard the past and find its vindication in the present.

The occasion was the presentation of a portrait of the late Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Sr. to the National Park Service yesterday by the Harry Flood Byrd Memorial Commission. Former Gov Mills E. Godwin, Jr. made a rare public appearance to present the portrait and the old senator's sons and the other custodians of his memory were there to bear witness to the event.

It has been 12 years since Byrd Sr.'s death, but "they could have had thousands here if they had wanted," said D. Latham Mims, editor of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record and campaign manager for Sen. Harry F. Byrd, Jr. "All they would have had to do is make it public and thousands would have come."

As it was, about 50 of the faithful came up the mountain. E. Blackburn Moore, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates for over 30 years was there, and M. J. (Peachy) Menefee, the old senator's 85-year-old administrative assistant was there, as well as the Massies the Stimpsons the Bufords and all the other names that have a sound as familiar as wind in the trees to the members of the Byrd clan.

"She wants to know if the Byrd tradition is alive and well in Virginia," Mims called out ot one of the women present. "I told her it's not only alive, it's very well indeed," he said.

"That's very good answer, honey," the woman answered.

At the ceremony the speakers called forth the past by their presence and in their words. "Like most Virginians," Godwin said, "I feel we honor ourselves when we pay tribute to the great Virginian whose shadow lengthens with the years, and whose contributions to his state and country have earned for him an enduring place in our history."

And the old senator's son and successor in the Senate, Harry F. Byrd Jr., recalled how his father had climbed to the top of nearby Old Rag Mountain every year on his birthday from the age of 15 to 75. "One of the most difficult things of being our father's son has been climbing that mountain so many times," he said.

Yes, said the men, the Byrd tradition was alive and its tenets all the more appreciated in these troublesome times. "All the things that have happened row, he predicted 20 years ago," said one of the old senator's cousins by marriage. "The deficit spending, the inflation, the fall of the dollar."

"He grows more appreciated day by day," said Blackie Moore.

But for the most part, the talk was of old family, new gossip and friends, the conversation as muted as the weather. In the valley below the season has made its presence known in a rather riotous fashion, but in the mountains it shows itself more decorously; pale green trees and white flowers as diffident as the manners of the assembled guests.

And so they stood, in the waning afternoon, sheltered by the Blue Ridge and by their shard assumptions. "He was a faithful man," said Latham Mims of Harry Byrd, Sr. "He was loyal to his friends. Is it any wonder then that they've come back to honor him?"