History of WJU National Technology Transfer Center


Born in 1917 in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Robert Carlyle Byrd was left a virtual orphan by the death of his mother when he was only one year old.  Brought to West Virginia by his aunt and uncle to be reared as their own, he grew up in various communities in the bituminous coalfields, mastering life's early lessons and learning its duties as a miner's son, and graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930's.

Unable to afford college tuition, Byrd sought employment wherever he could find an opportunity, picking up new skills as he advanced.  One of those skills -- welding -- was in demand after World War II started, and he worked during the war years building "Liberty" and "Victory" ships in the construction yards of Baltimore, Maryland and Tampa, Florida.

At the end of the war, Byrd returned to West Virginia with a new vision of what his home state and his country could be.  In 1946, he made his first run for political office and was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates. After two terms in the West Virginia House of Delegates, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate; then to the United States House of Representatives for three terms; and finally, in 1958, to the United States Senate, where he has represented West Virginia continuously since.  He has served longer in the United States Senate than anyone else in West Virginia's history.

In addition to fulfilling his Senate responsibilities, Byrd earned his law degree (J.D.), cum laude, from American University in Washington, D.C., in 1963 after ten years of study in night classes.  This achievement marked the first time in history that, while serving, a sitting member of either house in Congress accomplished the feat of beginning and completing courses of study leading to a law degree.  He was awarded his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, summa cum laude, by Marshall University in 1994, and also received an honorary doctorate of law from Wheeling College in 1979.

Senator Byrd first became a member of the Senate leadership in 1967, when he was selected to be Secretary of the Democratic Conference. Several leadership roles followed, including Democratic Leader (1977-1988), Senate Majority Leader (1977-1980, 1987-1988), and Senate Minority Leader (1981-1986). In 1989, Senator Byrd became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on which he has held membership since the beginning of 1959. Also in 1989, he was unanimously elected President pro tempore of the Senate, a post that placed him third in line of succession for the Presidency and provided him with the distinction of having held more leadership positions in the U.S. Senate than any other Senator in history. In 2001, after a shift of leadership, he once again regained the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee and was re-elected President pro tempore.

In 2000, West Virginia voters elected Senator Byrd to an eighth consecutive six-year term in the Senate, making him the only person in the history of the Republic to achieve that milestone.  He has carried all 55 counties several times, and, amazingly, in his general election of 2000, he carried all but seven of West Virginia's 1,970 precincts.  He also has the distinction of casting more votes than any other Senator in history.  In May 2001, he received what he considers his greatest honor when Governor Bob Wise and the West Virginia Legislature named him "West Virginian of the 20th Century."

Robert Byrd married the former Erma Ora James, his high school sweetheart and a coal miner's daughter, and they are the parents of two daughters, Mrs. Mohammad (Mona Byrd) Fatemi and Mrs. Jon (Marjorie Byrd) Moore.  They have six grandchildren -- Erik, Darius, and Fredrik Fatemi; Michael (deceased), Mona, and Mary Anne Moore -- and two great-granddaughters, Caroline Byrd Fatemi and Kathryn James Fatemi.

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