W.Va. legal community mourns Byrd

By Chris Dickerson and Kyla Asbury | Jun 28, 2010


CHARLESTON -- Members of the West Virginia legal community are mourning the death of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd, who was the longest serving senator in U.S. history, died June 28 at the Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia at the age of 92. He was hospitalized the previous week after suffering from heat exhaustion and severe dehydration.

Byrd, a Sophia native, had a reputation for funneling millions of dollars into building and economic development projects and into the West Virginia for its roads.

House Speaker Rick Thompson said Byrd's passing is an unspeakable loss first and foremost to West Virginia, but also to Congress and the entire country.

"He is a giant in the United States Senate, for his unmatched dedication to public service, incredible Constitutional scholarship and above all, his reverence and respect for the democratic process," said Thompson, who also is an attorney. "He is the most important public servant in West Virginia's history -– our state's biggest advocate and protector.

"This is a very sad day for all West Virginians. My heart goes out to his family, and I hope there is some peace in knowing that he is now with his beloved Erma. His love for West Virginia, his knowledge of the Constitution and his commitment to the Senate will never be matched."

Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis said Byrd was the embodiment of West Virginia's independent spirit in the Capitol.

"His dedication to his state, our nation and the Constitution was exceeded only by his love for his wife, Erma," Davis said. "His loss will be profoundly felt throughout West Virginia, as it is by me. I will miss him."

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin said Byrd was a man of dignity and compassion.

"He cherished West Virginia," Benjamin said. "Senator Byrd understood and appreciated the primary goodness of people from all walks of life and their contribution to the strength of this country.

"Senator Byrd was not only a champion of the Constitution, but was also one of its most visible and capable guardians. He understood that the Constitution continues to serve as the backbone of America. As a member of the Judiciary, I deeply appreciated his stance in this matter."

Though Byrd has now taken his rightful place in the history of this nation, his many contributions will continue on in the daily lives of the people whom he served, Benjamin said.

"My prayers are with his family," Benjamin said. "We will miss our senator."

Charleston attorney Michael O. Callaghan said Byrd's loss leaves a gaping hole in the make-up of the United States Senate and in West Virginia's political landscape.

"What a loss to the nation and the world," said Callaghan, a former assistant U.S. attorney and former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "With each news report about his death, I learn something new about him. As a child growing up in Nicholas County, I always thought Senator Byrd was a figure larger than life. I remember him campaigning and playing his fiddle.

"As I watched him with great admiration, I always dreamed of having the opportunity to work with him. Over the years, this dream became a reality as we worked on numerous issues that impacted the lives of West Virginians."

Callaghan said one of his best memories of Byrd is being with him at an AFL-CIO rally when he was running for Congress.

"We were the only two on stage together and he grabbed my arm and just kept pumping it and cheering with all his might, 'Yes We Can!' This went on for about 10 minutes," Callaghan said. "He literally wore my arm out and I just thought to myself, this is what it means to be a tireless fighter, to keep going when it hurts, when you are tired, when you are almost 90 and you just keep working."

Byrd inspired Callaghan and many others to keep fighting, stay focused on their vision and stand up for what's right, even in the face of criticism and adversity, Callaghan said.

"There are few men in the history of the world who have come to wield so much power, yet remain so humble in their bearing and their attitude towards service," Callaghan said. "He never used his power to grab at personal wealth, nor did it corrupt him. He only used it to better the second love of his life, West Virginia. West Virginia, this great nation, and the world will greatly miss Robert C. Byrd."

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, also a Charleston attorney, said Byrd's death means the loss of the great protector of West Virginia.

"Sen. Byrd did so many things for our state; things that you cannot put into a dollar amount," Carper said. "He did bring a lot of money into our state, but the results of that money are left untold. He provided the infrastructure for water, roads and many other things."

Carper said he remembers receiving a phone call from Byrd, who was having dinner in Charleston at Southern Kitchen, nearly three years ago.

"He called to tell me he happened to sit at the table across from my grandkids and that they were delightful," Carper said. "My grandson is eight years old now and he remembers Sen. Byrd and that dinner."

On May 13, 2005, the Department of Defense released its Base Realignment and Closure report for that year, slating the 130th Airlift Wing as one of its units to be decommissioned. Upon learning of this, the Kanawha County Commission and the Yeager Airport Board of Directors formed the Keep 'Em Flying grassroots organization in an attempt to prevent the unit from being decommissioned.

"When the Department decides to decommission a unit, there is usually only a 15 percent chance you can change their mind," Carper said. "Byrd fought with us and saved the unit and saved our airport, and he didn't just change a few peoples' minds; the BRAC commission voted unanimously to keep the unit intact. Not many people can do that."

Carper said he was honored to have the opportunity to work with Byrd on several occasions and will miss the senator.

"We've lost a giant," Carper said. "No one can ever replace him and what he has done for us."

Byrd was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958 and in June 2006, he surpassed the Senate longevity record of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina republican.

In November 2008, he stepped down as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, but he remained the Senate's president pro tempore at the time of his death, a largely symbolic post reserved for the longest-serving member of the Senate, which put him third in line of presidential succession after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Byrd, a former butcher and welder, started in politics in the West Virginia Capitol when he served as a state legislator from 1947 to 1953. He served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958.

Byrd was also known as the longest-serving member on congressional history, was the Dean of the Senate from 2003 until 2010, was the oldest member of the current Congress at the time of his death and was the first person to serve uninterrupted for half a century as a U.S. senator.

Byrd ran for state and national office 15 times and never lost. He was named majority whip in 1971 and majority leader in 1975. Countless projects bear Byrd's name, including the federal courthouses in Charleston and Beckley, the locks on the Ohio River at Gallipolis Ferry, a Clarksburg high school, the Green Bank radio telescope and numerous streets, libraries, health clinics and college departments.

Although in his early career he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which he said he mostly joined because of its anti-communist position and the political connects he could make, and filibustered against the landmark Civil Rights Act for more than 14 hours in 1964, he later said both were mistakes and embarrassments that haunted him.

Byrd was known for fiercely opposing the war in Iraq, which he said was mostly because of the Bush Administration's attempts to declare war without the approval of Congress.

In his final years, Byrd because to delegate more of his responsibilities to other senators and staff members and his public appearances became less frequent.

Byrd's wife of nearly 70 years, Erma, died in 2006. He is survived by his two daughters and their husbands, Mona and Mohammad Fatemi and Majorie and Jon Moore; five grandchildren, Erik Fatemi, Darius Fatemi, Fredrik Fatemi, Mona Pearson and Mary Ann Clarkson; five great-granddaughters and two great-grandsons. He is preceded in death by grandson Michael Moore, who was killed in a 1982 traffic accident.

Others also commented on Byrd's death.

* Steve Roberts, President of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said Byrd's legacy will love on through the many people who have benefitted from his leadership in the state and in the country.

"On behalf of the entire West Virginia Chamber of Commerce membership, I would like to express my heartfelt sympathies to Senator Byrd's daughters, family and his many friends across the State of West Virginia," Roberts said. "Senator Byrd was a tireless advocate and a champion for the people of West Virginia. The lives of West Virginians have been made better by Senator Byrd's service for generations."

* Gov. Joe Manchin said he and Gayle Manchin were deeply saddened by Byrd's passing.

"Like all West Virginians, the news broke our hearts. Sen. Byrd was a fearless fighter for the constitution, his beloved state and its great people," Manchin said. "He made a significant mark as a member of Congress in both our state's and nation's history. His accomplishments and contributions will define history for eternity. Our hearts and prayers go out to his daughters, friends and loved ones, his committed staff and to the people of West Virginia; we have suffered a terrible loss."

* West Virginia Secretary Natalie E. Tennant said Byrd never can be replaced.

"I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the family of Senator Robert C. Byrd's family," Tennant said. "It is difficult to put into words Senator Byrd's contributions to the State of West Virginia and to the United States. It saddens me to think of a West Virginia without Robert Byrd. But that is what we face today. We as West Virginians owe him a great deal. He represented us with dignity and class."

Tennant said the fact that he is the longest serving Senator in the history shows that the people of West Virginia loved him and respected him, and always appreciated what he was able to accomplish in Washington.

"He always kept the concerns of West Virginians close to his heart," Tennant said. "Without his leadership and the way he fought for us, it is hard to imagine where we would be as a state. But it is not just West Virginians who have lost a great leader. The people of The United States of America have lost a man who served as both Senate Majority Leader and Minority Leader and also as President Pro Tempore of the Senate."

Tennant said Byrd served as Senator longer than President Obama has been alive, sat on powerful committees and made extremely difficult decisions every day.

* West Virginia House of Delegates Majority Whip Mike Caputo said Byrd's service to West Virginia and the country was invaluable in countless respects, and that West Virginia coal miners in particular owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

"As a legislator, I have great admiration for his fight to ensure that mine safety regulations were both thorough and properly enforced," Caputo, D-Marion, said. "As UMWA District 31 International Vice President and a former coal miner, I deeply appreciate his concern for and dedication to miners both in West Virginia and throughout the country. Senator Byrd was the best friend the coal miner has ever had."

* State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin issued a statement saying in the days and weeks to come, many words will be written and spoken in tribute to Byrd, but that none will rise to the greatness and great achievement he has rendered to the people of the United States and especially West Virginia citizens, whom Byrd loved deeply.

"In Lincoln's Gettysburg Address he stated that those who gave their lives for what they believed had already dedicated and consecrated the battlefield cemetery far above the words he spoke that day," Tomblin said. "In that same sense of duty, honor and country, Senator Byrd's lifetime of public service speaks for itself. His record of accomplishment will continue to positively affect the lives of all Americans and stand as an example for future generations who will seek to serve."

Tomblin said as a man who experienced humble beginnings, and personal tragedies, Byrd never gave up and never quit in his efforts to improve his beloved West Virginia.

"He was always ready to take advantage of opportunities not for himself, but for our State," Tomblin said. "His success has been unmatched. We are all saddened by the loss of this great man. We will miss not only his presence and great ability, but we will miss his friendship and his outstretched hand, always willing to help those who could not help themselves. No man is indispensable, but he certainly is irreplaceable. May God bless the memory and ongoing accomplishments of this greatest of West Virginians."

* Marshall University President Stephen J. Kopp said Byrd is a man for the ages.

"Let history write bold and defining strokes celebrating his extraordinary life, a life of incalculable achievement, service to our great state and nation and guardian of the U.S. Constitution," Kopp said. "Today, we have lost a true son of Marshall, a true son of West Virginia and a true son of our great nation. He was a man of humble beginnings who rose through more than 50 years of public service to become one of the most accomplished and legendary statesmen our nation has known and we all mourn his passing with very heavy hearts. Thank you, Senator Byrd."

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