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Byrd was instrumental in W.Va. higher education

Click here to see a timeline, videos and more on Robert C. Byrd.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd had a "special place in his heart" for Morris Harvey College and helped the campus blossom over his years in the U.S. Senate, said University of Charleston President Ed Welch.

Byrd was instrumental in launching UC's new school of pharmacy, which bears his name, and steering funds toward renovations at Riggleman Hall, Welch said. The late senator took classes at UC when it was named Morris Harvey.

Byrd, a chairman for several years of the powerful Senate appropriations committee, couldn't always promise federal funding for projects right away, Welch said. He might tell UC officials that it would depend on the next congressional budget.

"But for the school of pharmacy, it was, 'Yes, let's do it,'" Welch said.

Byrd has guided significant federal dollars toward highways, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure in the state, but always paid close attention to West Virginia's colleges and universities.

In a statement Monday, state Higher Education Policy Commission Chancellor Brian Noland said, "His countless contributions have reached every facet of West Virginia, and postsecondary education is certainly no exception. From lasting education facilities, outstanding scholarship opportunities and vital higher education legislation, his impact will be felt by generations of West Virginians to come."

G.T. "Buck" Smith, president at Davis & Elkins College, said Byrd balanced his attention and sought funding for both public and private colleges.

"He very much believed in private enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit," Smith said. "He knew very clearly that a strong America and a strong economy relied both on the private and public sector."

Facilities at private schools such as Davis & Elkins, Alderson-Broaddus College, Bethany College and UC bear Byrd's name.

Byrd secured federal money to build the Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism and to renovate the Graceland Inn, the 19th-century home of U.S. Sen. Henry Gassaway Davis in Elkins.

In turn, the conference center next door to the Graceland Inn was named in his honor, Smith said.

Still, public schools also felt Byrd's significant impact, as measured by the centers for biotechnology, academics and technology and rural health named after him at Marshall University and the sizable health sciences center and cancer research laboratory at West Virginia University.

In the Eastern Panhandle, Byrd had developed a good relationship with the past few presidents at Shepherd University.

"He was very good to Shepherd. We have three buildings on campus thanks to Sen. Byrd," said Valerie Owens, the university's director for external affairs.

The Erma Ora Byrd Hall for nursing education opened in 2007, and Byrd secured $10 million in federal money for it.

In 2002, the Scarborough Library addition was completed. It houses the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies, which contains the archive of Sen. Byrd's papers.

"The idea is to protect them, preserve them and make them available for researchers," Owens said.

In the mid-1990s, Byrd guided $9 million to build the Robert C. Byrd Science and Technology Center at Shepherd. The building houses science classrooms.  

"We've been very fortunate to have such a good relationship with the senator and we will miss him dearly," she said.

Jim Skidmore, chancellor of the state's Community and Technical College System, said Byrd always supported improving the Pell grant program, which "really helped a lot of disadvantaged students" attend both two- and four-year colleges.  

In addition to Morris Harvey, Byrd also had taken classes at Concord College in Mercer County.

"I was very aware of and impressed with Robert Byrd's legacy before I came to West Virginia," Concord University President Gregory F. Aloia, the school's president since 2008, said in a statement.

"Robert Byrd has been a strong advocate for higher education and has continually supported initiatives for West Virginians to have access to and graduate from college," Dr. Aloia said. "One of the challenges for West Virginia today is how to get non-traditional students to finish a degree. As a non-traditional straight-A student, Senator Byrd served as a great role model for West Virginians in this regard."

Byrd would frequently visit the University of Charleston campus, where he had given speeches and delivered commencement addresses. He'd always ask Welch how his old political science professor, Evelyn Harris, was doing.

"She was the best and most inspiring professor that he'd had," he said.

In 2004, UC opened the Erma Byrd Art Gallery. Byrd had visited the gallery, and Welch heard the senator speak to his wife about the artwork over the phone.

"He called to describe to her the gallery he knew she would never see," Welch said. "She was in bad health and they were never able to forecast when she could travel -- whether it'd be a good day or bad day."Reach Davin White at davinwhite@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1254.


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