JUST AS SURE AS God made little green apples to establish the First Families of Virginia, so the end of 50 years of Harry Byrds in the United States Senate won't erase the magic of this name in the Old Dominion. Somewhere it is written in the cherished traditions that a Byrd in Virginia is worth two in any of the 12 other colonies--and so it is little wonder that there are serious people who refuse to believe that Harry Flood Byrd Jr. is really calling it quits.

They're probably the same people who doubted seriously that "Little Harry" would ever begin to measure up to his father, and who thought Harry the Younger would be merely a seat-warmer for an unexpired term that his father left him after 38 senatorial years. That, of course, was 18 years ago--and if the Byrd "machine" did rust away in that time, the senator's political grasp on constituents showed little loss of strength. When party labels got fuzzy in Virginia, Sen. Byrd came up with the recipe for having your political cake and eating it, too: he left the Democratic Party, became an "independent," voted with the Democrats to organize the Senate and protect his seniority and then voted almost without exception with the GOP.

Couple this with a low-to-invisible legislative profile --marked by an incredibly consistent lack of interest in ever becoming the author of any significant legislation--and you have the model Virginian in the halls of the federal legislature, never over-promising and, most importantly, never embarrassing the state.

As dean of the School of Limited Government, in which single-minded fiscal tightness turned out to be the secret of political longevity, Sen. Byrd has persevered with dignity, a strong sense of personal honor and a fierce pride in his state. That is why in his retirement he will continue to be a source of political counsel, and to enjoy the respect even of those who--agree with him or not--respect his dedication, integrity and good old political savvy