One of the most powerful, steadfast friends West Virginians have ever had is gone. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who died Monday, was a man who, though supremely skilled in politics, made public service his priority.
Byrd was among the ranks of truly great senators, a giant whose skill as a statesman matched his devotion to the Constitution. He revered the Senate as a key guarantor of the rights of Americans.
Some of his fellow lawmakers thought of him as the conscience of the Senate. He was that, reminding other members of Congress and occasionally presidents of their duty as he saw it.
He could be a gentle teacher or a harsh taskmaster, depending on the seriousness of the matter at hand and whether he believed the Constitution was being trampled upon.
Few, if any, lawmakers in our nation's history have known the workings of Congress and the larger federal government better than Byrd.
He combined that understanding with monumental skill as a politician to accomplish great things for his beloved Mountain State.
Reports of politicians enriching themselves through their offices have become all too common. No one ever accused Byrd of that. His lifestyle was simple, as reflected by his financial statements.
Byrd, a stickler for decorum in the Senate, was far from a "stuffed shirt." Many West Virginians treasure memories of seeing and hearing him play his "fiddle," with substantial skill. Moments before picking it up, he might have been discussing the strengths and faults of the Roman Senate or the mind-numbing details of U.S. government policy.
He was very proud of what he accomplished for West Virginians - and that became a major source of criticism outside his state. He was labeled the "King of Pork" for steering billions of dollars in federal funds to the Mountain State. Byrd's reaction was that the government would spend the money anyway, and that he was happy to be able to send some of it home.
Public works projects named for the senator and his late wife can be found in every corner of West Virginia.
Some will view that as Byrd's most lasting legacy. Perhaps so, but his many other contributions will be remembered by those who watched as, down through the years, he refused to compromise his principles for political gain.
That dedication to defending the Constitution - as well as his deep Christian faith - sometimes puzzled observers who tried to fit Byrd into a partisan political slot. A staunch Democrat, he sometimes sided with Republicans. Normally a conservative, he was known to take liberal positions.
Byrd has several places in the history books in part because of his long service in Congress.
But we think those who watched him carefully down through the decades will remember him for more than longevity.