His passion for reading and memorizing history, particularly ancient history, was a topic of mockery, some of it affectionate. He lectured everyone -- fellow senators, local officeholders, reporters, voters, pages, presidents. And he was deadly serious about the absolute necessity of knowing the past -- how things got to be the way they are -- as preparation for dealing with the present and the future.
"I started out on a long journey of discovery as a boy, finding in histories of Rome and of the Founding Fathers essential tools to knowing who I was and what I wanted to work for in representing the people of West Virginia in Washington," he wrote in his last book Letter to a New President: Commonsense Lessons for Our Next Leader. "I may have had something to prove, I will readily admit, if not to my colleagues in the House and then the Senate, then at least to myself. I craved a deeper knowledge of our republic and its traditions the way a hungry man craves bread."
As an older man, he returned repeatedly to Cato the Elder, Ovid or Shakespeare, ancient Etruscans, the Federalist Papers or Daniel Defoe -- but no longer out of duty.
"I sought respite from the rigors of legislating in the cool wisdom of books because the heroes I found there were my teachers and companions," he wrote.
Just as a whole family or even a community feels a swell of triumph when a smart kid in their midst earns a scholarship or scores a touchdown, so have West Virginians enjoyed a sense of satisfaction at Sen. Byrd's accomplishments.
In him, people saw aspects of themselves and their parents and grandparents: solid, sensible, often obstinate, flawed, deliberative, dependable and complex, full of potential revealed through education, hard work and personal growth.
Whatever else happened Monday, for West Virginians, an era passed.