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Byrd 'a master of the legislative process'

July 09, 2010|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD
  • Sen. John Unger reads a poem Friday at a memorial service held for the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd at St. Lukes United Methodist Chruch in Martinsburg, W.Va.
Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- More than 140 people, including a sizable contingent of elected officials and office seekers, attended a memorial service Friday night in Martinsburg to celebrate the life of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

The ecumenical, nondenominational program at St. Luke's United Methodist Church included special remembrances by former U.S. Rep. Harley Staggers Jr. and 167th Airlift Wing Commander Col. Roger Nye, along with remarks by representatives of Gov. Joe Manchin and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

Byrd died June 28. He was 92.

Nye, who recalled first meeting Byrd 30 years ago, said he knew being a U.S. senator was important at the time, but he didn't fully understand how important the West Virginia Democrat was in the political arena.

Nye went on to talk about Byrd's support of the Airlift Wing over the years, noting the senator's help in purchasing new C-130 aircraft about 20 years ago and then maneuvering the military unit's conversion at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport to a new mission with C-5 aircraft.

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Instead of opting for new C-17 aircraft that senators from other states were vying for, Nye said Byrd supported the conversion from C-130s to C-5s because he knew it would bring hundreds of more jobs to West Virginia.

Nye said "The Spirit of Erma," a C-5 named in honor of Byrd's wife, was flying Friday in support of the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Because of about $285 million in appropriations Byrd helped secure for the military unit's conversion, Nye said the 167th Airlift Wing is "the envy" of many organizations in the U.S. Air Force.

Staggers recalled Byrd attending the Keyser, W.Va., attorney's first fundraiser when he ran for Congress.

Byrd, Staggers said, ate the food and stayed the entire time, and effectively bolstered his political career just by attending the event.

"He was truly a master of the legislative process," Staggers said.

After being elected, Staggers said he made the mistake of speculating to a newspaper reporter that Byrd would retire, given that the senator was advancing in years.

Later, Staggers said he met Byrd in his private office for lunch and after more than an hour of pleasant conversation, the senator mentioned seeing the newspaper story and made sure that the congressman knew he had no plans to retire.

"My faith tells me that (he) is in heaven," said Staggers, who served in Congress for 10 years.

In her homily for the senator, the Rev. Barbara Spies-Scott said she believed Byrd touched "the core of people" because he truly cared for them.

"To me, there are not words in the English language to describe this statesman," she said.

In addition to the remembrances, the service included scripture readings by state Sen. John Unger and Berkeley County Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield, and a solo performance of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" by Helen Harris.

Byrd's 1978 recording of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" also was played, and after the remembrances, those congregated for the service stood and sang verses of "Amazing Grace."

The service was held to allow area residents who were unable to travel to Washington or to Charleston, W.Va., to pay last respects to the late senator, who became the longest serving member of Congress in November 2009.

The Rev. John Yost said 145 people attended the service. Many of them sang along to John Denver's "Country Roads," which played as they left the church.

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