1983 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Motivation comes from within. Encouragement comes from without. So, I don't know of any greater service that we can perform than that of inspiring the young people of our country to develop the best that is within themselves."
Born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., in North Carolina in 1917, Byrd lost his mother, who contracted influenza, before he was a year old. He was adopted by an aunt and her coal-miner husband, Dalton Byrd, and grew up in the coal camps of West Virginia.
As a boy, Byrd collected his neighbors' garbage and fed it to the hogs he raised to earn extra money. He attended a two-room school and completed 12 grades in 10 years, graduating valedictorian of his class in 1934. Unable to afford college tuition, Byrd sought employment wherever he found an opportunity-pumping gas at a filling station, working as a produce salesman, and then becoming a meat cutter.
During World War II, he worked as a welder in the construction yards of Baltimore and Tampa. When the war was over, he returned to West Virginia with a new vision of what his home state and his country could be. In 1946, he made his first run for political office and was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.
After two terms, Byrd was elected to the West Virginia Senate; then to the United States House of Representatives for three terms. Finally, in 1958, he was elected to the U. S. Senate, where he represented West Virginia. He served longer in the Senate than anyone else in West Virginia's history. In fact, only three members in the history of Congress have had longer tenures.
Byrd earned his law degree, cum laude, from American University in 1963, after 10 years of night classes. He was awarded his B.A. degree in political science, summa cum laude, by Marshall University in 1994.
In 1977, his Democratic colleagues elected Byrd Democratic Leader, a position he held for six consecutive terms. He served as Senate Majority Leader for six years (1977-1980, 1987-1988) and as Senate Minority Leader for six years (1981-1986). On two different occasions, he served as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Senator Byrd had the distinction of having held more leadership positions in the U.S. Senate than any other senator in Senate history.
In 2000, Byrd was elected to the Senate for an eighth consecutive term, making him the only person in history to achieve that milestone. In 2001, the West Virginia Legislature named him "West Virginian of the 20th Century."
He was married to Erma, his high school sweetheart, and they had two daughters and six grandchildren.
In the spring of 2000, the Robert C. Byrd Youth Summit gathered high school students from across West Virginia to find common sense ways to end youth violence. When addressing youth about success in life, he said, "Success comes through personal enterprise, hard work, and proven productivity. These are the foundation blocks of our free enterprise economic system and our democracy."* Deceased