Robert Byrd, longest-serving member of Congress, died on Monday
West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd had been in Congress since 1953. He won his ninth term to the US Senate in 2006.
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Byrd was a near-deity in economically struggling West Virginia, to which he delivered countless federally financed projects. Entire government bureaus opened there, including the FBI's repository for computerized fingerprint records. Even the Coast Guard had a facility in the landlocked state. Critics portrayed him as the personification of Congress' thirst for wasteful "pork" spending projects.Skip to next paragraph
Before he was 1, his mother died and his father sent him to live with an aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, who renamed him and moved to the coal-mining town of Stotesbury, W.Va. He didn't learn his original name until he was 16 and his real birthday until he was 54.
Byrd's foster father was a miner who frequently changed jobs, and Byrd recalled that the family's house was "without electricity, ... no running water, no telephone, a little wooden outhouse."
He graduated from high school but could not afford college. Married in 1936 to high school sweetheart Erma Ora James — with whom he had two daughters — he pumped gas, cut meat and during World War II was a shipyard welder.
Returning to meat cutting in West Virginia, he became popular for his fundamentalist Bible lectures. A grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan suggested he run for office.
He won his first race — for the state's House of Delegates — in 1946, distinguishing himself from 12 rivals by singing and fiddling mountain tunes. His fiddle became a fixture; he later played it on the television show "Hee Haw" and recorded an album. He abandoned it only after a grandson's traumatic death in 1982 and when his shaky hands left him unable to play.
At his 90th birthday party in 2007, however, Byrd joined bluegrass band Lonesome Highway in singing a few tunes and topped off the night with a rendition of "Old Joe Clark."
After six years in the West Virginia legislature, Byrd was elected to the U.S. House in 1952 in a race in which his brief Klan membership became an issue. He said he joined because of its anti-communism.
Byrd entered Congress as one of its most conservative Democrats. He was an early supporter of the Vietnam War, and his 14-hour, 13-minute filibuster against the 1964 civil rights bill remains one of the longest ever. His views gradually moderated, particularly on economic issues, but he always sided with his state's coal interests in confrontations with environmentalists.
His love of Senate traditions inspired him to write a four-volume history of the chamber. It also led him to oppose laptops on the Senate floor and to object when a blind aide tried bringing her seeing-eye dog into the chamber.
In 2004, Byrd got Congress to require schools and colleges to teach about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787.
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