Craning their necks and clapping to Appalachian music, West Virginians bid farewell Friday to Robert C. Byrd, their beloved senator who rose from childhood poverty in a coal mining town to become the nation’s longest-serving member of Congress.
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries watched as Byrd’s casket was carried down the red-carpeted steps of the state Capitol where he began his political career in 1947. Byrd, who died Monday at 92, never lost an election.
“I’ll remember him as he was when I came to know him,” Obama said, “his white hair flowing like a mane, his gait steady with a cane, determined to make the most of every last breath. The distinguished gentleman from West Virginia could be found at his desk to the very end and doing the people’s business.”
Obama recalled an early discussion with Byrd, who as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan.
“He said there are some things I regretted in my youth,” Obama said. “I said, ‘None of us are absent of some regrets. … That’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.’”
“As I reflect on the full sweep of 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice,” Obama said. “Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality. That is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, to be made more perfect.”
Former President Bill Clinton sought to humanize Byrd, a fellow Democrat, after other speakers canonized him.
Recalling Byrd’s ability to bring billions of dollars to West Virginia, Clinton said he told the senator: “If you pave every single inch of West Virginia, it’s going to be much harder to mine coal.” Byrd responded that “the Constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents.”
Victoria Kennedy, widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, recalled watching Byrd vote in favor of Obama’s health care reform bill on Christmas Eve.
“I was in the gallery, and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said, ‘Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye.’”
Kennedy and Byrd became close friends after a brief rivalry for power in the Senate. When Kennedy, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008, became ill during Obama’s inauguration, Byrd was overcome with emotion and had to leave.
Biden reminded the crowd how much Byrd cared about improving the condition of those he represented.
“This is a guy who continued to taste, smell and feel the suffering of the people of his state,” Biden said. “Because of that service, you have gained greatly.”
People in the crowd strained to get a view of Byrd’s casket, which was draped with a West Virginia flag and a bouquet of red roses. Mourners clapped along with music that celebrated the region’s heritage and Byrd’s own talent as an accomplished fiddler. The West Virginia National Guard’s 249th Army Band played John Denver’s “Country Roads.”
Howard Swint, who brought his two daughters to the funeral, recalled meeting Byrd. “I found him to be a man of tremendous grace despite his years of powerful positions,” he said.
Graduate student Matt Noerpel attended a visitation as the senator lay in repose overnight at the Capitol.
“It’s Robert Byrd. He’s as much a political legend as there is,” he said.
Byrd’s body was to be flown back to Virginia, where he will be buried Tuesday next to his wife, Erma, who died in 2006.
Byrd was the nation’s longest-serving senator, spending more than a half-century there. He began his political career in the West Virginia House of Delegates and went on to serve in the state Senate before being elected to Congress in 1953.
He served first in the House and then for 51 years in the Senate, where he developed a reputation as a master of the chamber’s rules and an oft-feared advocate for West Virginia.
In his home state, Byrd directed billions of dollars to projects ranging from government buildings to the FBI’s national repository for computerized fingerprint records. Many facilities bear his name, including the federal courthouse in Charleston and a huge radio telescope in the Allegheny Mountain town of Green Bank.
Byrd evolved over the decades, from a segregationist opposed to civil rights legislation, to a liberal hero for his opposition to the Iraq war and a supporter of the rights of gays to serve in the military. And he proudly became a free-spender as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It took him just two years to reach his goal of bringing more than $1 billion in federal funds back to West Virginia for highways, bridges, buildings and other projects.
He once referred to himself as “Big Daddy” for his ability to secure federal funds for his state.
Byrd was born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died before his first birthday, and his father sent him to live with aunt and uncle Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They renamed him Robert and moved to Stotesbury, W.Va.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press