Robert Byrd, the longest serving member of Congress in history, often credited the law degree he earned in 1963 from American University’s Washington College of Law with instilling in him a new level of confidence.
Byrd passed away June 28 at the age of 92.
"We've always been proud to say Sen. Byrd is an alumnus of American University and the Washington College of Law," said AU President Neil Kerwin. "By any standard, his career in the Congress and in particular the U.S. Senate was epic. His interests ranged broadly with a profound and deep concern for the Constitution.
"We numbered him among the university’s friends. We took great care not to prevail unnecessarily on his time, but he was always willing to talk with us when the need arose. We share a loss with the entire state of West Virginia, his family, and the United States as a whole.”
Long known for his institutional knowledge of the Senate, the West Virginian earned the degree at the age of 45, after he already had served four years in the state’s House of Delegates, two years in the state Senate, six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and four and a half years in the U.S. Senate.
“It is with great sadness that we learned of Sen. Byrd’s passing,” said Washington College of Law dean Claudio Grossman. “He was one of our most esteemed and accomplished alumni, and his legacy in the Senate as well as his devotion to the Constitution will inspire countless numbers of present and future leaders in the U.S. and abroad.”
Byrd is one of the only members of Congress to have put himself through law school while in office, and what’s more, he hadn’t yet earned a baccalaureate.
As a freshman state delegate in 1947, Byrd noticed that the legislature’s “hewers of wood and carriers of water” tended to be lawyers, he told American magazine in 2000. So in 1950 he began taking classes at Morris Harvey College. Eight years later, after winning his U.S. Senate seat, he decided to pursue a law degree at AU.
“I went down to see Dean John Sherman Myers one day and told him my story,” Byrd recalled. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. In as much as you have 70 hours of straight-A work leading to a bachelor of arts degree, I’m going to make you a challenge. If you can complete the required (law school) courses—and maintain no less than a B average—I will recommend you for a degree.’”
Earning a law degree “gave me confidence,” he said a decade ago. “Now I’m also one of the hewers of wood and carriers of water. It also helped me to better organize my thoughts. It also helped me to understand a lot more about history.”
Byrd held more leadership positions and cast more roll-call votes that any senator in history. He considered himself a student of history and tireless champion of education, and harbored a deep appreciation for the Constitution.
“The men who wrote it—they were steeped in the classics. The men who created this durable, amazing, wonderful crucible for liberty were students of history. They—the framers, God bless their names—bequeathed to us something very profound, something strong, yet something also quite delicate.”
A nine-term senator who took office on Jan. 3, 1959, Byrd served as majority leader twice and wrote a four-volume history of the body.
“Sen. Byrd was not only the longest-serving member of Congress in history, he was a master of the rules, policy process and an institutionalist,” said James Thurber, director of AU’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “He cared deeply about preserving the Senate and its functions of deliberation, oversight and careful law making. He was a true workhorse—not a show horse—from his first day to his last day in Congress. His use of the power of the purse for West Virginia and the public good generally is a model for all members and America. We are saddened but proud that Sen. Byrd was an alum of American University.”