Harry F. Byrd Jr. Is Laid to Rest
WINCHESTER — Hundreds of local residents and state political leaders said goodbye to former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. Saturday afternoon at a funeral service at Christ Episcopal Church that recalled his devotion to his nation, his state and his family.
Byrd, who at 98 was America’s oldest living former U.S. senator, died Tuesday at his Winchester home known as “Courtfield.” He and his father, former Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr., held the same U.S. Senate seat for 50 years, with “Young Harry” serving from 1965 to 1983.
The Rev. John Danforth, who served in the Senate with Byrd, recalled his former colleague during a homily that he carefully noted was not a eulogy, because he was instructed that there would be no eulogies.
For decades the Byrds were the state’s preeminent political powerbrokers, and many an elected leader or candidate sought and received Harry Jr.’s counsel. Danforth said his friend’s passing has been called the end of an era.
“Why should we concede that this is the end of an era?” asked Danforth, whom Missouri residents elected to three Senate terms. “There’s no reason why Harry’s civility should not continue. ... His cheerfulness and civility did not expire with his death.”
Byrd, who studied at both Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the University of Virginia, was an orchardist and a newspaperman (publisher of both The Winchester Evening Star and the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg). He also served in the Virginia Senate from 1948-1965.
But he was best known as a U.S. Senator, starting as a conservative Southern Democrat but breaking with the party in 1970 after refusing to pledge to support whomever was chosen as its candidate for the 1972 presidential campaign.
“I would rather be a free man than a captive senator,” Byrd said on March 17, 1970, in declaring that he would campaign as an Independent.
That fall he became the first Independent elected to statewide office in the Old Dominion and first Independent U.S. Senate candidate to win a majority of votes despite competition from both major political parties. Byrd repeated that feat six years later, becoming the first U.S. Senator to be both elected and re-elected as an Independent.
Danforth referenced Byrd’s independence as a senator and recalled him as having a concerned but positive outlook for his country. He always spoke up when he felt it necessary.
“He was never charmed by the sound of his own voice,” said Danforth. “But in matters of principle, he had to speak.”
The topic of many of Byrd’s speeches was government spending, as fiscal conservatism was a family trademark. Danforth said Byrd usually made his thoughts known to the Senate chamber shortly before any budget vote, but his remarks generally were limited to about 10 minutes and he never acted as an obstructionist.
“The senators were not going home until Harry was heard on his great issue,” Danforth said. “... He said his piece, and that was it.”
The Senate was a collegial place in their time, said Danforth, who briefly served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations following his time on Capitol Hill.
He contrasted that with today’s Congress, which he said “all seems so joyless, so deadly. Harry would have said, ‘Cheer up, life is good.’”
Danforth also said he never saw Byrd ride the subway used by many members of Congress.
“He was a walker,” Danforth said, “ramrod straight, walking briskly to the Capitol as though he still were at VMI.”
While the former Missouri senator has personal remembrances of Byrd, he said that over the past few days he’d heard favorite recollections from family members “about the man they loved and called ‘Pop.’ His most esteemed title isn’t ‘Senator,’ it’s ‘Pop.’”
Danforth said that for the rest of their lives, family members “never will stop trying to make Harry Byrd proud.”
The service drew many of Virginia’s current and former political leaders, including U.S. senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine; Gov. Bob McDonnell; former U.S. senators John Warner, Charles Robb and George Allen; former governors Allen, Kaine, A. Linwood Holton Jr., Robb, Gerald L. Baliles, and Mark Warner; and U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf.
Byrd was laid to rest in Mount Hebron Cemetery beside his wife, Gretchen Thomson Byrd, and at the feet of his parents, Harry Sr. and Anne Douglas Beverly Byrd.
His nine grandchildren served as pallbearers. Four of them read scriptures during the service.
A former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Byrd’s flag-draped coffin was carried from the hearse to the gravesite by eight sailors.
The brief graveside service included sailors in the Navy Ceremonial Guard providing a 21-gun salute and the playing of “Taps.”
— Contact Vic Bradshaw at email@example.com