Shepherd archivists begin cataloging Byrd papers

December 26, 2010|By CECELIA MASON | West Virginia Public Broadcasting
  • The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd is congratulated after the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies was dedicated in August 2002.
Herald-Mail file photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The tedious task of organizing the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s papers has begun at Shepherd University on papers and memorabilia that shed light on Byrd’s personality and career.

Archivists at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies have to process close to 10,000 boxes from Byrd’s offices and home.

“He had a lot of drawings that he did when he was in grade school,” said Ray Smock, center director.

“And he loved animals, especially squirrels, and he has lots of drawings of these animals, and he would write on the back that he was giving this to his grandmother.”

Smock said Byrd treasured the childhood drawings and had them put in special frames.

“They’re the kinds of things that kids all over America bring home and their parents hang on the refrigerator,” Smock said.

Byrd’s office walls in the U.S. Capitol and Hart Senate Office Building were filled from floor to ceiling with framed certificates, political cartoons, newspaper clippings and photos. One frame even contained copies of pay stubs from the time Byrd worked as a butcher in Southern West Virginia.

Smock said a framed card that the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., gave Byrd on Nov. 20, 1997. on Byrd’s 80th birthday illustrates the friendship they had.

“And he writes to Bob, ‘many happy returns and may the best be yet to come,’” Smock said, quoting from the card. “There have been two Bobs in my life and they were both born on November 20th,’ And he was speaking about his brother Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated.”

Smock points out an engraved letter “R” in the frame with Kennedy’s card.

“And on the note Sen. Kennedy writes, ‘P.S. the “R” is partly for Robert, but as you know better than I, it is also the medieval Roman number for 80,’” Smock said.

Some of the items show how Byrd was a lifelong student. One example is a Bible that Byrd used in 1989 when he was sworn in as president pro tem of the U.S. Senate.

“His Bible is just completely marked up with marginal notes and underlinings and passages that were particularly strong to him, and of course that meant practically the whole Bible,” Smock said.
Smock read from an underlined passage: “Five loaves, two fishes, 12 baskets, 500 men; he’s reading in St. Matthew here, 14.”

This Bible was a gift given to Byrd in 1981 by his staff. The notations Byrd wrote in the margins and first few pages also show how his handwriting changed as he aged and dealt with essential tremor disorder.

“But in 1989, you can see his handwriting is clear as a bell and his famous signature is there and then later as he writes in the Bible, you can see his hands start to shake and then later on, his hand is really shaky at this point,” Smock said.

Smock pointed to one very shaky paragraph Byrd wrote that is not actually a quote from the Bible.

“He wrote a note in the front of it, ‘we speak much about what matters little and we speak little about what matters much,’ which is often a pretty good definition of what happens in our political discourse these days, so I think that’s what he had in mind when he was thinking about that,” Smock said.

Smock said Byrd read the dictionary almost as thoroughly as he read the Bible. His goal was to learn new words every day. Byrd’s copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is among the artifacts.

“So the words that he chose to learn that were new are underlined and marked throughout the dictionary from ‘A’ to ‘Z,’” Smock said.

“He said he was going to work through the whole dictionary; this is the dictionary that he used to improve his vocabulary, which was very important to a man who was such a great orator in the Senate,” Smock said.

Archivists at the Byrd Center are cataloging all the objects, books and papers from Byrd’s offices. They will be stored in acid-free boxes and eventually many of the papers will be digitized and made available for research.

Smock estimated it will take three to five years to catalog the extensive collection.

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