Senate Historian Donald Ritchie delivered this historical minute on June 4, 2013, to a meeting of the Senate Democratic Conference. The Senate Historical Office regularly provides brief historical notes at the opening of both the Democratic and Republican meetings. This one strikes a particular chord with the staff of the Byrd Center and we are happy to pass it along. Our thanks to our dear friend and long-time colleague Don Ritchie--Ray Smock
SENATE HISTORICAL MINUTE–June 10, 1963
Senator Byrd Earns his Law Degree
Fifty years ago, on June 10, 1963, Senator Robert C. Byrd graduated from American University Law School here in Washington. Many lawmakers have law degrees but this marked the only time that a sitting member started and completed a law degree while serving in Congress.
Robert C. Byrd grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia. When he graduated from high school in 1934 he needed to work rather than attend college. He took a job at a gas station, then in a produce store, and during World War II he was a ship welder. In 1946 Byrd ran for a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates and for the rest of his life served in elected office. While in the state legislature, he enrolled at Morris Harvey College (now Charleston University) and later at Marshall University in Huntington. He took classes in the evening, and completed seventy hours of straight-A work in college, but stopped before he obtained a bachelor’s degree so he could devote his time to running for a seat in Congress in 1952.
West Virginia Senator Harley Kilgore advised the young congressman to get a law degree for legislative purposes, even if he did not intend to practice law. Byrd began taking night classes at George Washington University Law, but the university informed him that they would not award him a law degree because he lacked a B.A. So he went to see the dean at American University’s law school and explained his predicament. The dean made a deal. If Byrd could complete the required courses in law with no lower than a B average, he would recommend him for an LL.B. degree. Byrd accepted the challenge.
After the day’s adjournment, Byrd would head for law school classes in the evening. This was especially hard for him in the House, where he was running for reelection every two years. Once he was elected to the Senate in 1958, the six-year term allowed him to speed up the pace and finish his law school work. It took him ten years, but he managed to finish with a high B average, and received his law degree in June 1963.
Even without a college degree, Senator Byrd never stopped his education. Throughout his congressional career he kept reading the books he had never had the chance to study in school. Beyond regularly pouring through theSenate Procedures volume, he read American history and Roman history, and wrote his own books about the U.S. and Roman Senates.
Senator Byrd would receive many honorary degrees, but he earned his law degree. Not only that, he arranged for the president of the United States to hand him his certificate. Thanks to Senator Byrd, John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at American University on June 10, 1963. That was when he gave his “Strategy of Peace” speech, one of the most important of his presidency. In that address, Kennedy announced development of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which Senator Byrd would vote for that October.
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