Former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. Dies

Posted: July 30, 2013

The Winchester Star

U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.

WINCHESTER — Harry F. Byrd Jr., who made history with his Independent run to the U.S. Senate in 1970, died this morning at his home in Winchester. He was 98.

His name may have preceded him into the Senate, but it was his declaration of independence and two successful  elections as an Independent candidate that made his own name in that chamber.

Harry Byrd Jr. was the first Independent to win election to the U.S. Senate with a majority of the vote despite facing a challenge from both major parties.

Byrd was already a newspaper publisher, World War II lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, and 18-year Virginia state senator when he joined the U.S. Senate in November 1965. He came to the Capitol to fill the seat his retiring father and namesake had held the previous 32 years.

In 1970, the final statewide office holder of Virginia’s dominant political family of the 20th century made the country take notice.

Byrd broke from the Democratic Party when he refused to sign an oath to support the Democratic nominee for president in 1972, without knowing who would be selected. He ran as an independent.

“I realize full well the difficulties I face in this decision,” Byrd said in a statewide address on March 17, 1970, announcing his decision. “The course I am taking is an uncharted one.

“But I would rather be a free man than a captive senator.”

He won 54 percent of the votes, defeating challengers from both parties.

Byrd’s victory made him Virginia’s first Independent statewide officeholder.

When he won again six years later, Byrd became the first U.S. senator elected and re-elected as an Independent.

Byrd retired from the Senate in 1983. He was 68 and had spent two-thirds of his adult life in public office.

Byrd served in the U.S. Senate from 1965 to 1983.

Voters first selected him for office in 1947 when he was elected to the state Senate at 32. Byrd was instrumental in shaping the state budget during much of his 18 years in Richmond.

His crowning legislative moment in the U.S. Senate was also budget related as he championed a bill that was signed into law in 1978 mandating a balanced federal budget.

It was one of the few bills Byrd introduced. He was a fiscal conservative steeped in Jeffersonian principles and believed, “we have too many bills, too much legislation that we just don’t need.”

Byrd, however, cast 6,270 votes in the U.S. Senate and answered 96 percent of Senate roll calls.

While most recognized for his political life, his first love was the newspaper business, focusing on it more than the family’s other business — apples.

Byrd started working at the Winchester Evening Star in 1935 and was involved in some capacity for parts of nine decades. Byrd was editor and publisher of both The Winchester Star and Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record.

Byrd served as vice president of the Associated Press. He traveled for interviews with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco.

Harry F. Byrd Jr. was born on Dec. 20, 1914, in Winchester to Harry Flood and Anne Douglas Beverley Byrd Sr. He was the oldest of four children, three boys and a girl.

He played a significant role in the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival, serving as a page in the first one in 1924 and as a grand marshal three times, including this spring.

He helped select and hosted numerous queens for the festival. He also married one — Gretchen Thomson. They married  on Aug. 9, 1941, four years after her reign as Queen Shenandoah XIV.

Shortly after they married, Byrd applied for a Naval Reserve commission, which came through on Dec. 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Byrd rose to lieutenant commander during World War II and was the executive officer of a patrol bombing squadron in the Pacific.

The Byrds had three children, sons Harry III and Thomas and a daughter, Beverley.

The couple were married for 48 years before Gretchen died on Oct. 26, 1989.

Byrd is survived by his three children, nine grandchildren, and 11 great grandchildren.