Former Sen. Harry Byrd Jr. dies

By Alex Bridges
with wire reports

Leaders from around the commonwealth on Tuesday mourned the death of former U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr., a Democrat-turned-independent whose political career was defined by fiscal conservatism and the defense of racial segregation in Virginia in the 1950s.

Byrd, 98, died Tuesday in Winchester.

Byrd served as a state senator from 1948 to 1965, and in the U.S. Senate from 1966 to 1983. His family runs a number of newspapers in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, including the Daily News Record in Harrisonburg and the Winchester Star. His son, Tom Byrd, is president and publisher of The Winchester Star.

“I worked with him for 42 years here at the Star, father and son, fourth generation working for the third generation, and we had a great working relationship, a great father-son relationship,” Tom Byrd said by phone Tuesday. “I’m very fortunate.”

Byrd noted the support his father had during his political career.

“He was very successful,” Byrd said. “The people of Virginia were very kind to him in electing him and re-electing him until he retired in 1983.”

The politician and businessman remained connected to the community that raised him.

“He loved Winchester and he loved Virginia, and [I] couldn’t ask for a better father as well as a friend, one who helped me in my career, and I was very grateful,” Tom Byrd said.

The Byrd newspaper business also had its competition, namely with those published by the Keister family. The two families served as industry rivals for decades. Pat Keister, former owner of the Northern Virginia Daily, stated in a release that the senator will be greatly missed.

“My wife, Dee, and I are greatly saddened by the passing of Sen. Harry Byrd Jr.,” Pat Keister stated. “Even though the Keister family and Byrd family have been newspaper competitors for many years, we have also been friends going back to the time of E.E. Keister and Harry Byrd Sr. We are proud of this long friendship.

“We extend our deep sympathy to the Byrd family,” Keister stated.

Response to Byrd’s death came from all levels of Virginia’s political system.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, in an emailed statement, called Byrd a “son of the Valley.”

“This is a sad day in the Commonwealth,” McDonnell stated. “A chapter of our history has concluded; we’ve lost a good and decent person and a dedicated public servant.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine issued a statement on Byrd’s death, saying that “few families have dedicated as much to our Commonwealth as the Byrds.”

“One of the highlights of my time as governor was hosting Harry and his adult grandchildren at the mansion where he told stories from his boyhood,” Kaine added. “His civil manner and commitment to public service will be missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this time.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner also extended his condolences to the Byrd family.

“Sen. Byrd dedicated his life to public service, including more than three decades in elected office,” Warner said in his statement. “I especially respected his commitment to fiscal accountability. Even when Sen. Byrd and I occasionally agreed to disagree, he always was a gentleman about it.”

State Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, serves the district that covers much of the Northern Shenandoah Valley and the area that Byrd represented in the Virginia General Assembly.

“I am deeply saddened at the passing of Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr. and send my heartfelt sympathy to his family,” Vogel said in a statement. “Senator Byrd was an exceptional statesman unlike any that Virginia has ever known. His leadership changed the Commonwealth and his strong fiscal principles continue to guide us today.”

Winchester mayor Elizabeth “Liz” Minor said Byrd’s passing marked a sad day for the city.

“I feel very privileged to have called him a friend,” Minor said. “He was such a wonderful senator, a true southern gentleman, loved his family, friends and his country. I can only say those wonderful things about him because they are so very true.

Charles Zuckerman, a former mayor of Winchester, called Byrd “a gentleman’s gentleman.” Zuckerman said Byrd would greet him with “Hello, Mr. Mayor,” even years after he left the city leadership post. Zuckerman had not seen Byrd in the past few years but did see the former senator riding in the Grand Feature Parade for the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival this spring.

“He always made me feel good,” Zuckerman said. “He was just a great person in every way.”

Byrd served 17 years in the U.S. Senate, replacing his powerful father, Harry Flood Byrd, a U.S. senator from 1933 until failing health forced him to retire in late 1965. Gov. Albertis Harrison appointed the younger Byrd, a longtime state senator who, like his father, supported segregation.

In 1966, Byrd won a special election for the remaining years of his father’s term. Switching from Democrat to independent, Byrd won re-election in 1970 and 1976.

Even as an independent, Byrd got more votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. It was only the second time an independent won a U.S. Senate seat.

“It’s a hard way to run, but if you can win that way it’s the best way to win,” Byrd later said. “You’re totally free of obligations to anybody. … You don’t have to follow a party line.”

He made a career of preaching the value of fiscal restraint and claimed Congress could balance the budget if it could just hold annual spending increases to the 3 percent to 5 percent range.

When he retired in 1982, Byrd said he was leaving public service with his convictions and integrity intact, but with regret that “Congress refuses to obey its own law which mandates a balanced budget.”

Both Byrds supported Virginia’s stand against desegregation, including the decision to push “massive resistance” — even school closings — to fight the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. In 1956, he had called the ruling an “unwarranted usurpation of power” by the court.

In Warren County, “massive resistance” shuttered schools until Feb. 18, 1959. The Rev. James M. Kilby, of Front Royal, said by phone that while he never knew either Byrd, he remembers what “massive resistance” did to him, his siblings and family and many other black students kept out of school in Warren County. A court battle eventually forced the state to reopen the schools.

“I know I’m a preacher and everything now and I love everybody,” Kilby said. “What he did then I didn’t think was too nice or too kind.”

Now a church leader, Kilby said he forgives Byrd for his stance so many years ago.

“I will say this, that I will keep his family in my prayers and also I remember what he did and I will forgive it,” Kilby said. “The Bible say you should forgive and the Lord forgives all of us, so I’m a forgiving person.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com