Charleston, WV — Nevada Senator Harry Reid made the following remarks today at a memorial service for the late Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Senator Byrd passed away earlier this week. Below are Senator Reid’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
“I went to a library in Nevada about 15 years ago and took out the old novel Robinson Crusoe. When I came back to the Senate, Robert Byrd was one of the first people I saw.
“We talked about the time we had spent back home, and I mentioned that I had just read this classic story of a castaway.
“Senator Byrd just leaned his head back, looked toward the heavens and paused for a second. Then he said: ‘Twenty-eight years, two months and nineteen days.’
“I was astonished. I couldn’t tell you how many years Robinson Crusoe had been shipwrecked, and I had just read the book days before. Robert Byrd knew it to the day, and he hadn’t read it in more than 50 years.
“I was hardly the first to be dumbfounded by his brilliance. We have all marveled at the breadth of Bob Byrd’s boundless mind – one he so generously gave to the people of this state and this country.
“A few years before Barry Goldwater died, he wrote to Byrd from his home in Arizona, just to tell him how much he admired Byrd’s gift for remembering and reciting even the most obscure facts. ‘Keep it up,’ Goldwater wrote, ‘because when you get to heaven, and I’m there too, I hope, I’ll have someone to listen to.’
“Robert Byrd didn’t just memorize and catalog for the heck of it. In fact, he once advised a crowd here in Charleston that the purpose of education is not simply to make the mind a storehouse of information – but to transform it into an inquisitive and innovative instrument of knowledge.
“He could never quite quench his thirst for learning. It was without limit and without equal.
“The first in his family to make it to the third grade, Byrd once said he craved knowledge the way a hungry man craves bread. And as he consumed it, he grew and he changed.
“He never stopped learning – learning from others, or even from his own mistakes. And with every new lesson he learned, he also learned how much more there was to know.
“Robert Byrd could dispense knowledge as well as he absorbed it. Indeed, it was because he was a tireless learner that he became a peerless teacher.
“I’ll remember how – in his precise, poetic voice – he taught us to protect the traditions that strengthen the Senate of the United States, and warned us to avoid the hazards that weakened the Senate of ancient Rome.
“And he taught me to carry in my pocket a copy of the Constitution all Senators swear to support and defend.
“I have it with me today – as I do every day – with a personal note from Senator Byrd inscribed inside.
“Robert Byrd always kept that charter so close to his heart because he loved his country. We will always keep his memory so close to our hearts because we loved him.
“When the Founders conjured this Constitution Robert Byrd so revered and treasured – when they imagined the people’s representatives who would fill the great positions they prescribed – I believe they had the senior Senator from West Virginia in mind. They had to.
“The authors outlined only a few characteristics of a United States Senator – his age, citizenship and residency. If only they had kept writing, I’m confident they would have described Robert C. Byrd in full.
“He was exactly what they intended: An eloquent, steadfast steward of the nation’s founding principles – fiercely loyal to the state that chose him – forever faithful to his constituents, his country and his Constitution.
“It’s hard to believe America’s longest-serving Member of Congress was once a freshman Senator. But in the summer of that first year – 1959 – the Charleston Gazette asked a young Robert Byrd to name his highest ambition.
“‘If I live long enough,’ he replied, ‘I would like to be Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.’
“Why did he dream that dream? Why didn’t he aspire to the White House, or the Governor’s Mansion, or any other high office?
“It’s because Robert Byrd knew it was from that chair that he could best help his neighbors back home. He knew that was his first and most important job as their representative in the Senate.
“Of course – just as he’d predicted – Robert Byrd did indeed live long enough to hold the gavel he coveted. Thirty years to the day after he assumed the title of Senator, he assumed the title of Appropriations Committee Chairman – trading in the title of Majority Leader to do so. And then he lived and served for two decades more.
“Though he did more than anyone before – and probably more than anyone will again – he never thought he’d done enough for West Virginians. And as we watched him work, we learned another lesson: to never forget why we serve or where we come from.
“He once wrote, ‘West Virginia is indelibly written on my heart, and it will be there until my body is returned to the dust.’
“No one has meant more to his state than Robert Byrd did to West Virginia. And the United States Senate has never meant more to anyone than it did to Robert Byrd.
“It’s true that his records for longevity are astounding. After all, just think about this: He served in our nation’s Congress for more than a quarter of the time it has existed – and longer than a quarter of today’s sitting Senators, and the President, have been alive.
“It is by virtue of his endurance that Robert Byrd knew and worked with many of the greats of American history. But it is because of his enduring virtue that he will forever be remembered as one of them.
“His career cannot alone be counted in the time he worked – rather we should measure it in the lives of those for whom he worked.
“His accomplishments aren’t in the sum of the millions of dollars he brought back to cities like Huntington and Wheeling and Beckley, but the millions of families he brought out of the same poverty he endured.
“On the last day of his life, Robert Byrd felt just as strongly about that principle as he did the very first time he rose to speak as a state legislator in the beautiful State Capitol building behind us.
“In that speech – which of course he memorized before delivering – he said: ‘To me, the dollar is secondary. Human misery and suffering – and the welfare of helpless, dependent children – come first.’ He was teaching us from Day One, and didn’t once stop.
“Now, that doesn’t mean he didn’t also love his remarkable records of public service – rankings that will forever be his and never be surpassed. He surely was proud of them.
“In fact, I have no doubt that right now, Robert Byrd is bowing his head forward, looking down from the heavens and saying: ‘Fifty-seven years, five months and twenty-six days.’”