Sen. Robert Byrd (D) was one of those rare individuals who always taught me something new even after 25 years of working together. Whether he was speaking to 500 people or conducting a quiet meeting in his office with three or four, there was always a lesson to carry away. And usually the lesson was relevant at many levels. The anecdote about a famous Roman general also carried a direct application to the topic at hand.
[IMGCAP(1)]His legendary memory combined with a relentless quest for learning made him a masterful teacher. I experienced early in our relationship that his unmatched knowledge of parliamentary procedure did not stop with the rules of the Senate.
Once, he convened a meeting of our state’s House of Representatives delegation to discuss a legislative issue bearing directly upon West Virginia. He inquired what progress we were making to get the matter in a bill that he could then handle in the Senate. I remember hemming and hawing about the procedural difficulties. He listened patiently and then tactfully asked whether we had looked at a specific House rule — and he cited the section and subsection — that might be a useful parliamentary device to move the measure. I walked back across the Capitol realizing he knew the different rules of the House as well as he did the Senate’s.
I have never met another person with Sen. Byrd’s mental discipline and constant drive for learning. This is what carried him from a mountain hollow in southern West Virginia to the hallways of the United States Senate. And he always walked in both. When traveling with Sen. Byrd — whether visiting constituents or campaigning — I witnessed how his upbringing always dominated his power. Many a sit-down lunch with constituents featured, at his request, a cheese sandwich, just as he ate growing up.
Every conversation was marked by recollections of those who had shaped his early life, especially his beloved wife, Erma. And every legislative effort, especially his appropriations actions, was phrased in how it would make a difference for the people he had known growing up. He constantly reminded appreciative West Virginia audiences that his intent was providing opportunities to assist others to better themselves.
The power of Robert Byrd was far more than what he wielded as the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history and someone who held the most leadership offices. His strength is also what he showed us about the power of the human mind when directed to any achievement. He wrote prolifically, both about history as well as current topics. His limited-edition paintings are prized by those he presented them to. He was an accomplished fiddle player. His deep religious faith, joined with his knowledge and application of the Bible, underscored every action.
Most likely, the quiet drive and inexhaustible curiosity of this shy young man who started as a butcher in rural West Virginia would have brought him success in any undertaking. West Virginia and the nation are fortunate that his unique love of learning, family and faith brought him to the United States Senate.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. The West Virginia Democrat served as governor from 2001 to 2005 and represented the state’s 2nd district from 1983 to 2001.