CHARLESTON, W.Va. — President Barack Obama and thousands of ordinary West Virginians honored the late Robert C. Byrd 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 for the service honoring Byrd, who died Monday at the age of 92.
"I'll remember him when I came to know him," Obama told the gathering, "his white hair flowing like a mane, his gait steady with a cane, determined to make the most of every last breath. The distinguished gentleman from West Virginia could be found at his desk to the very end and doing the people's business."
Obama also recalled an early discussion with Byrd, who as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan. "He said there are some things I regretted in my youth," Obama said. "I said, 'None of us are absent of some regrets ... that's why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.'"
"As I reflect on the full sweep of 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice," Obama said. "Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality. That is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn. A capacity to listen, to be made more perfect."
Former President Bill Clinton sought to humanize Byrd after other speakers canonized him.
Recalling Byrd's ability to bring billions of dollars to West Virginia, Clinton said he told the senator: "If you pave every single inch of West Virginia, it's going to be much harder to mine coal." Byrd responded that "the constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents."
Kennedy called herself "humbled" to speak for her late husband. She recalled Byrd voting in favor of Obama's health care reform law on Christmas Eve. "I was in the gallery and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said, 'Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye."
Vice President Joe Biden reminded the crowd how much Byrd cared about his state and improving conditions. "This is a guy who continued to taste, smell and feel the suffering of the people of his state," Biden said. "Because of that service you have gained greatly."
West Virginians 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.
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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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