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West Virginia's Historic People

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Robert Carlyle Byrd

Robert Byrd

Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd (1917-2010), born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr., was a U.S. Senator from West Virginia and one of the longest-serving members of the U.S. Congress in history. He was the majority leader of the U.S. Senate from 1977 to 1981 and from 1987 to 1989.

Although he considered Sophia in Raleigh County his hometown, Byrd was actually born in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Byrd’s mother died in 1918 from the flu pandemic, when he was just shy of a year old. Byrd’s father sent him to live with his Aunt Vlurma and Uncle Titus Dalton Byrd in West Virginia. His aunt and uncle adopted him and changed his name.

His adopted father, a miner, drifted from job to job, and Byrd spent his childhood in many different company towns. He was the valedictorian of the 28-student 1934 class of Mark Twain High School. Because of the Depression, he could not afford to go to college. He worked briefly as a gas station attendant, then took a job as a produce boy at a local market. He studied a meat cutter’s manual in his spare time and, by the end of the 1930s, he was earning $85 a month as the head butcher at a grocery store in Crab Orchard. On May 29, 1937, he married Erma Ora James. The two had met at Mark Twain Grade School in Raleigh County. Byrd moved to Baltimore in the early 1940s to work as a welder in the wartime shipyards, but returned to West Virginia after the war ended and opened his own grocery store in Sophia. In 1946, he ran for his first public office, winning election to the West Virginia House of Delegates. His slogan was “Byrd by name, Byrd by nature, let’s send Byrd to the Legislature.” He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952 and served there for six years until being elected to the Senate in 1958, where he served until his death in 2010.

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