CHARLESTON, W.Va. - President Barack Obama and thousands of people from Robert C. Byrd's beloved state of West Virginia honored the late senator Friday at a memorial service outside the building where Byrd was first elected to public service in 1947.
West Virginians stood atop curbs, craned their necks for a better view and clapped along with the Appalachian music that Byrd loved as his coffin was brought in, draped with a West Virginia flag and a bouquet of red roses.
With the president, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries on hand, pallbearers carried the coffin to the Capitol's main courtyard for the service honoring Byrd, the nation's longest-serving member of Congress. Byrd died Monday at the age of 92.
"I'll remember him as he was when I came to know him," Obama told the gathering, "his white hair flowing like a mane, his gait steady with a cane, determined to make the most of every last breath. The distinguished gentleman from West Virginia could be found at his desk to the very end and doing the people's business."
Obama also recalled an early discussion with Byrd, who as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan. "He said there are some things I regretted in my youth," Obama said. "I said, 'None of us are absent of some regrets . . . that's why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.'
"As I reflect on the full sweep of 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice. Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality. That is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn. A capacity to listen, to be made more perfect."
Former President Bill Clinton sought to humanize Byrd after other speakers canonized him.
Recalling Byrd's ability to bring billions of dollars to West Virginia, Clinton said he told the senator: "If you pave every single inch of West Virginia, it's going to be much harder to mine coal." Byrd responded that "the constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents."
Victoria Kennedy called herself "humbled" to speak for her late husband, the former Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass). She recalled Byrd voting in favor of Obama's health care reform law on Christmas Eve.
"I was in the gallery and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said, 'Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye.' "
Biden reminded the crowd how much Byrd cared about his state and improving conditions. "This is a guy who continued to taste, smell and feel the suffering of the people of his state," Biden said. "Because of that service you have gained greatly."
Some in the crowd came because they knew Byrd. Others came because of Byrd's place in history as a U.S. senator for 51 years.
Byrd began his political career at the state Capitol when he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1947. He went on to serve in the West Virginia Senate before being elected to Congress in 1953. He spent nearly six decades in Congress, first in the House of Representatives and then his final 51 years in the Senate.
Byrd went from being a segregationist opposed to civil rights legislation, to a liberal hero for his opposition to the Iraq war and a supporter of the rights of gays to serve in the military. Byrd was born Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died before his first birthday and his father sent him to live with aunt and uncle Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They renamed him and moved to Stotesbury, W.Va.
After the ceremony, Byrd's body was to be flown back to Virginia, where he will be buried on Tuesday next to his wife, Erma, who died in 2006.