President Barack Obama and thousands of ordinary West Virginians honored the late Robert C. Byrd's legacy at a memorial service in the late senator's home state Friday.
With the president, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries on hand, pallbearers carried the late senator's casket down the red-carpeted steps of the Capitol to its main courtyard. The service honors the life and legacy of Byrd, who died Monday at the age of 92.
People stood atop curbs, craned their necks for a better view and clapped along with Appalachian music — Byrd was an accomplished fiddler — and the West Virginia National Guard's 249th Army Band playing John Denver's "Country Roads."
Byrd's casket was draped with a West Virginia flag and a bouquet of red roses.
Some in the crowd came because they knew Byrd. Others came because of Byrd's place in history as a U.S. senator for 51 years.
Charleston's Howard Swint, said he brought daughters Maddie and Arianna to the event "to celebrate Senator Byrd's life and public service to West Virginia."
Swint recalled meeting Byrd. "I found him to be a man of tremendous grace despite his years of powerful positions."
Graduate student Matt Noerpel came thought he'd never met Byrd. Noerpel attended a visitation as the senator lay in repose at the Capitol overnight. "It's Robert Byrd. He's as much a political legend as there is."
The nation's longest-serving member of Congress began his political career at the state Capitol when he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1947. He went on to serve in the West Virginia Senate before being elected to Congress in 1953.
He spent nearly six decades in Congress, first in the House of Representatives and then his final 51 years in the Senate. As a senator, he developed a reputation as a master of the chamber's rules and an oft-feared advocate for West Virginia.
In his home state, Byrd cemented larger-than-life status for directing billions of dollars to projects ranging from the courthouses to the FBI's national repository for computerized fingerprint records. Many bear his name, including the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.
Byrd evolved over the decades, from a segregationist opposed to civil rights legislation, to a liberal hero for his opposition to the Iraq war and a supporter of the rights of gays to serve in the military. And he proudly became a free-spender as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It took him just two years to reach his goal of bringing more than $1 billion in federal funds back to West Virginia. The money went to build highways, bridges, buildings and other facilities.
Byrd was born Nov. 20, 1917 in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died before his first birthday and his father sent him to live with aunt and uncle Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They renamed him and moved to Stotesbury, W.Va.
After the ceremony, Byrd's body will be flown back to Virginia, where he will be buried on Tuesday.
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