CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Back in 1959, when I was press aide to Sen. Robert C. Byrd in Washington, I never dreamed that he would evolve into my hero.
The 1950s were a different world, a time of undisguised prejudice, racial segregation, censorship taboos and other puritanical strictures. The Gazette had denounced Byrd for belonging to the hate-filled Ku Klux Klan. In those days, I considered him just another self-hustling mountain politician who preached in rural churches and played his fiddle at campaign rallies, catering to white Appalachian narrowness.
But multitudes of West Virginians liked him. He was elected three times to the Legislature, then three times to the U.S. House of Representatives. Klan allegations hounded him, but voters shrugged them off. In 1958, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and needed more staff.
I had been bored, endlessly tending the Gazette's city desk until midnight. When Byrd offered more than double my newspaper salary, I brushed aside my uncertainties and moved to Washington. The vision of lounging in the Senate cloakroom with Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Everett Dirksen and the like dazzled me.
Capitol Hill life is a charade. Staff aides are lackeys who hover at the elbows of Congress members, doing everything possible to make them look leaderly. I lasted only seven months. I got an ulcer, gained 30 pounds, and fled back to the Gazette's wonderful chaos.
My apprehensions about Byrd seemed justified a few years later when he fought against equality laws and staged a 14-hour filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But slowly, as decades turned, a remarkable change developed. Byrd grew in stature and wisdom, steadily distancing himself from the mountain prejudices of his boyhood.
His long seniority moved him higher in Senate power, and he began funneling millions in federal projects and jobs to West Virginia. He became the state's best economic development machine. (The late Gazette Editor Don Marsh argued that Byrd's home-state boons "aren't pork-barrel." I replied, "Oink, oink -- bring 'em on.")
This newspaper named Byrd West Virginian of the Year in 1974, then again in 1977, a third time in 1990. He deserved it each time.