By Victoria Myers, Byrd Center Student Intern
Senator Robert C. Byrd’s childhood shaped several strong beliefs that guided his life and political career. In an oral history interview conducted by Frank Van Der Linden, Senator Byrd reminisced on the beginning of his political journey. Speaking about the need to address coal miner’s issues for any campaign taking place in West Virginia, Senator Byrd remarked “I don’t mean to say I had only their interests at heart, for I tried to serve the school teachers, the veterans, and all the people.” From the beginning of his career, Senator Byrd believed in enhancing education in our state. Raised by a coal miner father who encouraged him to devote his attention to his education by buying him books and watercolors instead of toys, Senator Byrd excelled in school. This drive for improving himself through education overcame obstacles from walking three miles to the school bus every morning and evening, to balancing his pursuit of a law degree while serving in the United States Congress.
Education is not always about individual learning; it is also about teaching and communicating with others. As a young adult, Byrd taught a Sunday School class for boys at his church in Sophia, West Virginia. In addition to their religious instruction, Senator Byrd engaged his students in athletic activities and taking them on field trips to the State Capitol in Charleston as well as Washington, D.C., where the small-town boys saw and experienced the excitement and opportunity of these cities. His efforts through this Sunday School class inspired his students own lifelong passions for knowledge and new experiences.
Senator Byrd stated in the interview with Frank Van Der Linden, “In this country, we need mathematicians, we need scientists, we need historians, we need music teachers, we need to develop not only the body but also the soul, the heart, and the mind.” Through his own experience it is easy to see that he put great value on education and wanted the people of West Virginia to gain more knowledge for their futures and that of their state. Throughout his political career, Senator Byrd was an outspoken supporter of increasing teachers' salaries. He purchased saving bonds to give as scholarships to every valedictorian in West Virginia’s high schools. In 1991, Senator Byrd wrote a Byrd’s-Eye View column talking about his national scholarship program, stating: “these scholarships are intended to encourage excellence in education by giving motivated students assistance in pursuing their college educations."
Wanting to inspire students to have a greater understanding of the foundation of the United States government, Senator Byrd added an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 to establish Constitution Day. In his Byrd's-Eye View column, Senator Byrd explained "Our citizens must be familiar with the Constitution and the intent of the Framers who wrote it. I included a provision in U.S. law which designates September 17 of each year as Constitution Day, so that, on or near this day, all Americans can learn more about the Constitution and reflect upon its importance. Once again this year, September 20, 2006 schools in West Virginia and throughout our country offered special Constitution Day programs.”
Senator Byrd's own desire to learn placed education at the forefront of his efforts to support the people in West Virginia. His journey was one of the hardships and lessons that helped shape his approach to providing educational opportunities for more students in his state and across the nation.
Senator Byrd's 1977 oral history interviews with Frank Van Der Linden can be read in full here >>