“He meant the world to Boone County,” said John Protan of Sylvester. “We lost a great man. He will truly be missed.”
Protan grew up with Byrd, near Sophia in Raleigh County, and recalls when he was a butcher.
“He was orphaned when he was one-year-old and we grew up during tough times,” Protan said. “I remember him working as a butcher before he even got into politics.”
Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1917. When he was one year old, his mother, Ada Mae Kirby, died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother’s wishes, his father, Cornelius Calvin Sale, dispersed the family children among relatives. Sale Jr. was given to the custody of Titus and Vlurma Byrd, his uncle and aunt, who renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd and raised him.
Byrd was valedictorian of Mark Twain High School and, in 1937, he married his high-school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. He eventually attended Beckley College, Concord College, Morris Harvey College and Marshall College, all in West Virginia.
Protan said the life lessons Byrd learned while growing up in a coal-mining family helped him shape his political career.
“He never forgot his roots,” Protan said. “He understood our problems and our needs. He looked out for West Virginia and did everything he could do for this state and this county.”
Byrd visited the Coal Heritage Museum in June 2007 and was very impressed with all its exhibits and displays.
“He really enjoyed seeing a picture of him playing the fiddle in the 1940s that was part of the ‘Music of the Coalfields’ exhibit at the museum,” said Larry Lodato, secretary and treasurer of the Coal Heritage Foundation and director of the Boone County Community & Economic Development Corporation.
Early in his political career, Byrd often brought his fiddle to political rallies and played for those in attendance.
“I remember him playing his fiddle on the Boone County Courthouse steps,” Protan said. “He wore overalls and was just a son of West Virginia. He was one of us and was so loved and respected by the people he served.”
Byrd was admitted to a Washington area hospital a week ago, suffering from what was believed to be heat exhaustion and severe dehydration as a result of the extreme temperatures. By Sunday afternoon other conditions developed, and Byrd’s health took a turn for the worse, officials reported.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s staff issued a statement early Monday about the death of his colleague.
“Senator Jay Rockefeller and his wife, Sharon, today (Monday) joined West Virginians and people across the country in remembering the life and legacy of Senator Robert C. Byrd,” the statement said.
Rockefeller issued a personal statement, saying, “It has been my greatest privilege to serve with Robert C. Byrd in the United States Senate. I looked up to him, I fought next to him, and I am deeply saddened that he is gone. He leaves a void that simply can never be filled. But I am lifted by the knowledge of his deep and abiding faith in God, I have joy in the thought of him reunited with his dear Erma, and I am proud knowing that his moving life story and legacy of service and love for West Virginia will live on.”
“Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain,” Rockefeller went on to say. “My lasting thoughts and innermost prayers are with his family, his staff, the people of West Virginia, and all those who loved him.”
The office also issued a statement from Sharon Rockefeller:
“Senator Byrd was larger than life,” said Sharon Rockefeller. “I will always remember him fondly as a warm, gentle man, whose passion for West Virginia touched and inspired us all. I have always admired Senator Byrd’s great character and unfailing faith, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his daughters, his family, and all of his friends and neighbors in West Virginia.”
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said any statements about the life of Byrd would not come close to capturing the influence and enormity of the man.
“I do not know who to begin trying to calculate his immense influence on the people of this nation and the people of West Virginia,” Rahall said. “He was a defender of the Constitution and a champion of the Senate. He was West Virginia’s greatest ally, her faithful son and a source of tremendous pride. He was a mentor, a teacher, a leader, a constant source of inspiration and he was my friend. We will not see the likes of Robert C. Byrd pass our way again.”
Gov. Joe Manchin said the news of Byrd’s passing is a terrible loss to the state.
“Gayle and I are deeply saddened by the passing of our dear friend and great senior Sen. Robert C. Byrd,” Manchin said. “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. He made a significant mark as a member of Congress in both our state and nation’s history. His accomplishments and contributions will define history for eternity.”
Boone County officials also gave statements about the passing of the legendary Senator.
“It would be impossible to name all the things Senator Byrd has done for this country, this state and this county,” said West Virginia House of Delegates Rep. Larry Barker (D-Boone). “West Virginia was very fortunate to have someone that could accomplish all the things Senator Byrd accomplished over his long and distinguished political career.”
Boone County Commissioners all said Byrd would certainly be missed.
“This is a sad time for Boone County and the entire state to lose a statesman of his caliber,” said Commission President Atholl Halstead. “He was always able to help Boone County and we’re going to really miss him.”
“Senator Byrd was a great American and our country is weakened by his loss,” said Commissioner Eddie Hendricks. “He was a true spokesman for West Virginia and for Boone County. He will be sorely missed.”
“He grew up from poverty to the highest position in the U.S. Senate,” Commissioner Mickey Brown said. “While there, he helped the state and our county in many areas. He was the guardian of the U.S. Constitution and had a great impact on the future of our country. Many buildings, roads and institutions have been named for Sen. Byrd. He left an example that any man, no matter how humble a beginning, can go on and do great things.”