Robert C. Byrd, the familiar, snowy-haired senator, arrived at West Virginia University’s College of Law carting hundreds of pocket-sized copies of the United States Constitution.
They were identical to the version he carried in his breast pocket, and frequently pulled out on the Senate floor in order to sway his Congressional colleagues. Sometimes he persuaded them, and sometimes he didn’t, but each time he brandished his copy of the nation’s supreme law, that nation was reminded of its importance.
That’s how law school dean, and constitutional law expert, Joyce McConnell felt anyway. So a few weeks after Byrd’s visit, when she was asked to speak to a class of fifth-graders about the First Amendment, she took the remaining, miniature versions of the Constitution with her and passed them out.
Years later, a WVU student spotted her at the Student Recreation Center.
“Mrs. McConnell!” he called. “Mrs. McConnell! You may not remember me, but I was in that fifth-grade class when you handed out the Constitution, and I still have mine.”
McConnell smiled. In his 50-plus years in the Senate, Byrd brought billions of dollars into West Virginia and funded dozens of pioneering ventures at WVU. His name adorns buildings and highways and bridges across the state, and his largesse has won the loyalty, and appreciation, of many a voter.
But, for McConnell, Byrd’s death on Monday (June 28) at age 92, did not just represent a loss for West Virginia, or an end to the money he funneled into the state. It was a terrible tragedy for the entire country.
So it seemed fitting to remember Byrd not only as the nine-term senator who pulled financial strings, but as the defender of government, who might still inspire students long after his passing.
“He was our nation’s Constitutional conscience,” McConnell said.
WVU political science professor Neil Berch believes Byrd’s legacy will someday rest squarely on this, his staunch defense of the Constitution and his refusal to budge from the prescribed balance of power. But at West Virginia University, it is impossible to invoke the senator’s name without also remembering his unparalleled generosity.
Call it earmarks, call it reparations, says WVU history professor emeritus Ron Lewis, but, “how much of what West Virginia has would not be here without him?”
For more than 60 years, Byrd devoted himself to creating jobs and spurring economic development in the state, including the construction of more than 30,000 miles of highway and the relocation the FBI’s National Crime Information Center to Clarksburg. It’s the kind of construction that will survive his passing.
“He was innovative,” Berch said. “He was less concerned with grant money. What he did was move federal infrastructure to West Virginia.”
In addition to being a tireless advocate for the state, Byrd was a committed friend to WVU.
“West Virginia has lost a great friend and champion in Sen. Robert C. Byrd,” WVU President James P. Clements said. “He embodied what we hold so dear in the Mountain State: loyalty, commitment, hard work, honesty and faith. I respect so much all that he has done for West Virginia, West Virginia University and the entire nation.
“You don’t need to look far to see his lasting legacy – in energy research, transportation improvements, health care, education, homeland security, and more. We will miss his remarkable leadership – but long remember the principles by which he lived. His family, staff and colleagues are in our prayers.”
The list of University projects and programs to which Byrd contributed significantly goes on for pages and includes: The Erma Byrd Biomedical Research Center (named for his late wife); the National Research Center for Coal and Energy; the Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines, and Emissions; the Forensic Science Initiative; the Carbon Products Program in College of Engineering and Mineral Resources; the National Mine Land Reclamation Center; the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium; the NASA IV&V building in Fairmont; the National Environmental Services Center; and the PRT .
The Health Sciences Center here bears his name. So do a research professorship and a WVU-sponsored summit on school violence. The Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center is named after his grandson, who died in a car accident.
He enlisted WVU journalism professor Joel Beeson to lead the state’s Veterans History Project.
“Sen. Byrd was a great friend and champion of the Veterans History Project, especially our efforts to collect the stories of West Virginia’s African American war veterans,” Beeson said. “Oral history reaches deep into the collective and individual experiences of the men and women written out of the historical record because of racism and segregation. Sen. Byrd’s critical support of this work helps to right the historical wrongs done to the state’s men and women of color who fought bravely, and served and sacrificed for freedoms they did not have at home.”
“Working with Senator Byrd has been one of the highlights of my career,” Conner said. The senator worked tirelessly, even on holidays, to make sure each word was just right.
When the book was finally published, Conner asked Byrd to autograph his copy. “In big, eccentric script, he praised me and the WVU Press for all the work he had, in fact, done himself,” Conner said. “He was always generous, even with his own autobiography.”
Like many of his fellow West Virginians, Byrd was raised in the coalfields of West Virginia. His childhood wasn’t easy and his family wasn’t wealthy. But he overcame these early obstacles to earn a law degree and a revered place in politics.
In fact, it was this capacity for change that Lewis believes endeared Byrd to legions of West Virginians, and cast him as a leader in the eyes of many Americans.
“He is someone you can watch change over time,” Lewis said. “I believe the mark of the man is that he is willing to change his opinion. Do you want someone to serve in the Senate for 50 years who is incapable of change? He actually did evolve, and he understood himself in that context.”
He supported the Vietnam War, but fiercely opposed the Iraq War.
He got his start in politics with encouragement from the Ku Klux Klan, and later apologized for misplaced loyalties.
And, most famously in West Virginia, he called out the coal companies that he’d unwaveringly supported for years.
“He was still changing at 90 years old,” Lewis said. “You’re supposed to get calcified the older you get. He is one very few who didn’t.”
“Those who want to find fault can do it, but I think he’s a giant. Even with all of the faults, he comes out a great man. One word I’ve seen used over the years to describe him is irreplaceable, and I think that’s true.”
“We will now all need to strive to show ourselves worthy of this man’s dedication of his whole life to us,” Conner said. “He confessed and was genuinely contrite for his errors. He grew in power and intensity when virtuous positions were tested. That is the pattern he has set for us, in West Virginia and in the United States of America.”
By April Johnston
WVU News and Information
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