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Sen. Robert Byrd: King of pork or larger-than-life hero?

Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest serving U.S. senator in history, changed West Virginia forever. Robert Byrd was named 'West Virginian of the 20th century.'

By Vicki SmithAP / June 28, 2010

President Ronald Reagan, left, confers with Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole (Republican of Kansas), center, and Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd (Democrat of West Virginia), right, during a meeting with a bi-partisan group of Congressional Leaders in the Cabinet Room in the White House in Washington, D.C. on January 4, 1985.

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Morgantown, W. Va

There are two ways to look at what Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest-serving U.S. senator in history, has meant to the people and the place that sent him to Washington for 57 years in a row.

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Outside critics like Citizens Against Government Waste crowned him the "King of Pork," dismissing the billions of federal dollars he sent to West Virginia as worthless "Byrd Droppings."

But back in Charleston, a grateful legislature crafted a fitting description for the Democrat who dedicated his life to representing his state's people in Washington: They had his likeness cast in larger-than-life bronze for the first and only statue in the history of the state Capitol, and mounted it on a pedestal declaring him "West Virginian of the 20th Century."

Any other place, that might sound like hyperbole. But ask West Virginians to name someone else who has done more for the 1.8 million who live here, and there is usually silence.

"No one man that I know of," said Floyd Sturm, an 84-year-old retired train conductor from Grafton. "We wouldn't have some roads. We wouldn't have some schools. ... He's left his mark all over everything.

"You take those things away, imagine ... " he said, falling quiet. "It would be blank."

At least 40 contributions bear their benefactor's name, from the Robert C. Byrd Regional Training Center for soldiers at Camp Dawson in Kingwood and Robert C. Byrd High School in Clarksburg, to the 17-mile, four-laneRobert C. Byrd Drive near his hometown of Sophia.

"When you think of Senator Byrd, you think of West Virginia. Period," said Laura Blosser, a 45-year-old transport manager for Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown. "When you travel through the state, you see his name everywhere from the north to the south."

He was, says fellow Democrat and Congressman Nick J. Rahall, "simply irreplaceable."

Byrd's long-held grip on the Senate Appropriations Committee helped fund scholarships and schools, federal courthouses and prisons, even a massive radio telescope in Green Bank that tracks pulsar waves that have traveled through space for billions of years.

He made sure plenty of federal complexes were built in West Virginia, including the FBI's fingerprint repository in Clarksburg, the Coast Guard's National Maritime Center in landlocked Kearneysville, and a training center and firing range near Harpers Ferry for customs and border protection officers.