Harry F. Byrd Jr.

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Harry F. Byrd Jr.
United States Senator
from Virginia
In office
November 12, 1965 – January 3, 1983
Preceded by Harry F. Byrd Sr.
Succeeded by Paul Trible
Member of the Virginia Senate
from the 24th district
In office
January 8, 1958 – November 12, 1965
Preceded by George S. Aldhizer II
Member of the Virginia Senate
from the 25th district
In office
January 14, 1948 – January 8, 1958
Preceded by Burgess E. Nelson
Succeeded by Edward O. McCue Jr.
Personal details
Born Harry Flood Byrd Jr.
(1914-12-20)December 20, 1914
Winchester, Virginia, U.S.
Died July 30, 2013(2013-07-30) (aged 98)
Winchester, Virginia
Political party Democratic (Before 1970)
Independent Democrat (1970–2013)
Spouse(s) Gretchen Bigelow Thomson (1941–1989)

Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. (father)

James M. Thompson (brother-in-law)
Children Harry, III
Military service
Years of service 1941–1945
Battles/wars World War II

Harry Flood Byrd Jr. (December 20, 1914 – July 30, 2013) was an American orchardist, newspaper publisher and politician. Long nicknamed "Young Harry", to distinguish him from his powerful father, Harry F. Byrd Sr. (who had followed some of the same path, as well as served as Governor of Virginia and founded the Byrd Organization), this Byrd served in the Senate of Virginia and then represented Virginia in the United States Senate, for an aggregate of thirty-six years in elected public office (and published Virginia newspapers for 78 years).[1] Byrd succeeded his father in November 1965 and abandoned the Democratic Party in 1970, citing concern about its leftward tilt. He became the first independent in the history of the U.S. Senate to be elected by a majority of the popular vote, which Byrd did twice, although he continued to caucus with Democrats.

Family and education[edit]

Byrd was born December 20, 1914 in Winchester, Virginia, the eldest child of Harry F. Byrd Sr. and his wife Anne Byrd (née Beverley). His siblings included a sister, Westwood ("Westie"), and two brothers, Richard Evelyn (Dick) and Beverley.[2] The Byrds were one of the First Families of Virginia, and Byrd was a member of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. His uncle Richard E. Byrd was a pilot and polar explorer.

In 1931, at his father's urging, Young Harry Byrd enrolled at Virginia Military Institute. Two years later, Byrd transferred to the University of Virginia, where he became a member of the St. Anthony Hall fraternity, but left before graduating due to family circumstances, as discussed below.

On August 9, 1941 Byrd married Gretchen Thompson. They had two sons (Harry and Thomas), and a daughter, Beverley.[3]

Newspaper career and military service[edit]

In 1935, Young Harry Byrd left the University in Charlotteville to shore up his father's newspaper, The Winchester Star. He also gave up an opportunity to join a global business in Paris. The Star had been without a full-time editor since his father had left to represent Virginia in the United States Senate in 1933, as the Great Depression had intensified. Upon Young Harry's joining the paper, his father warned, "If you make too many mistakes, you're gone." However, he also arranged for his son to learn the publishing business under the tutelage of John Crown at the Harrisonburg Harrisonburg Daily News Record. Within a year of assuming the helm of the Winchester Star, Harry Byrd Jr. had become its editor and publisher, although his father retained financial control and advised him on editorials.[4]

Harry Byrd Jr. worked with many publishers of small newspapers in Virginia, assuming leadership directly or more indirectly through a seat on the paper's board of directors. In all, he dedicated 78 years to publishing in one capacity or another. Byrd became the publisher of the Harrisonburg Daily News Record from 1936 to 1941 and again from 1946 to 1981, and continued as a member of its board of directors until his death. Young Harry Byrd later became owner of the Page Shenandoah Newspaper Corporation, which published The Page News and Courier in Luray and The Shenandoah Valley Herald in Woodstock. He left the Page Shenandoah Newspaper Corporation in 1987 and retired as Chairman of the Byrd newspapers in 2001, succeeded by his son Thomas. Thus, family members have owned the publishing company for more than 100 years.[5]

Shortly after his marriage, Harry Byrd Jr. volunteered for the United States Navy during World War II and served initially in Navy Public Relations. He requested transfer to a combat position and was assigned to the Central Pacific as an Executive Officer with a bombing squadron of Consolidated PB2Y Coronados until mustering out in 1946.[6] During his naval service, Harry Byrd Jr. rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.[5]

After the war, Young Harry Byrd oversaw construction of a new publishing plant for the Star. He also became a director of the Associated Press and later served as its Vice-President.[7]

Virginia state senator[edit]

When in 1948 Young Harry Byrd won election to the Senate of Virginia representing the district surrounding his native Winchester, this marked the third consecutive generation of his family to enter politics. His grandfather Richard Evelyn Byrd, Sr. served as the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and Harry Byrd Sr. had served as a Virginia state senator, Governor of Virginia and United States senator. Young Harry had begun accompanying his father on trips during the elder's governorship, and once remarked that "I was in every county and city in the state by the time I was thirteen years old."[8] In time Young Harry Byrd became a key member in his father's statewide political network, known as the Byrd Organization.[9]

His father's hallmark, and that of his organization, became Byrd's as well - an insistence upon fiscal restraint by government, referred to as a "pay-as-you-go" policy. Byrd reflected part of this populist political legacy when he stated, "I am convinced we have too many laws, too much government regulation, much too much government spending. The very wealthy can take care of themselves, the very needy are taken care of by the government. It is Middle America, the broad cross section, the people who work and to whom the government must look for taxes - it is they who have become the forgotten men and women."[5]

Byrd served in the Senate of Virginia from 1948 to November 1965. There he was Chairman of the General Laws Committee. As a major player in the Byrd Organization, he supported Massive Resistance, a movement against desegregation which his father announced and led, although many other newly returning veterans realized Virginia's segregation had impeded its educational system and economic growth, as well as accepted the 1955 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.[10] In 1956, state senator Byrd provided strong and integral support of legislation that became known as the Stanley plan (after then-Virginia Governor Thomas B. Stanley, a Byrd Organization member).[11] That went so far as to require closing all desegregating schools, even those desegregating pursuant to court order, and was invalidated within three years after its enactment by both federal courts and the Virginia Supreme Court. Nevertheless, the legacy of racially based school closures and funding disruptions directed by the Stanley plan persisted in some localities until 1964, when the United States Supreme Court undercut support for segregation academies, segregated schools supported by public vouchers.

When the U.S. Supreme Court also invalidated the massively unequal voting district apportionment supporting (and supported by) the Byrd Organization in Davis v. Mann and its more famous companion case Reynolds v. Sims and similar decisions in other states, the Byrd Organization began a steep decline. Harry Byrd Jr. made no plan or significant effort to reverse it.[12] Indeed, Young Harry Byrd from the outset was intent on forging his own political path. In the state senate, he shepherded the Automatic Income Reduction Act, which guaranteed a tax rebate or credit to citizens whenever the general fund surplus exceeded certain levels. In just three years tens of millions of dollars were returned to Virginia taxpayers.[5] Also in 1965, redistricting occurred as required by the Reynolds v. Sims and Davis v. Mann decisions. Byrd's former 24th senatorial district (which included Clarke, Frederick and Shenandoah counties and Winchester City) became the 21st District (adding Loudoun County).

However, his father Harry Byrd Sr. had fallen ill (from what would ultimately be diagnosed as a brain tumor) and announced his retirement in November 1965, so their political ally Virginia Governor Albertis S. Harrison Jr. appointed Young Harry Byrd to what had been his father's seat.[13] Byrd Jr. resigned his state senate seat to assume the U.S. Senate seat. Republican J. Kenneth Robinson of Winchester won the now-vacant state senate seat, which would remain in Republican hands for decades, although its numeric designation would change after various censuses and reapportionment.[14]

U.S. Senator[edit]

Harry Byrd Jr. later won the resultant special election in 1966 as a Democrat, and served out the remainder of his father's term. He faced a strong primary challenge from a longtime opponent of Massive Resistance, fellow state senator Armistead Boothe of Alexandria, who benefited from urban voters enfranchised by recent one-man-one-vote Supreme Court decisions,[15] but won the Democratic primary by 8225 votes (under 1% of the votes cast).

In 1970 Byrd broke with the Democratic Party, when asked to sign an oath to support the party's yet-to-be-determined presidential nominee for the 1972 campaign. Rejecting this demand, he explained, "The Democratic National Committee is within its rights to require such an oath. I do not contest this action. I cannot, and will not, sign an oath to vote for an individual whose identity I do not know and whose principles and policies are thus unknown. To sign such a blank check would be, I feel, the height of irresponsibility and unworthy of a member of the United States Senate... I would rather be a free man than a captive senator."[16]

Byrd then ran for re-election to the Senate as an independent, although both major parties also nominated candidates. Widely popular in the state, Byrd won the senate seat, with an electoral majority of 54% against both Democrat George C. Rawlings Jr. of Fredericksburg and Republican Ray L. Garland of Roanoke.[17] Byrd thus became the first independent to win a statewide election in Virginia, and also the first independent to win a U.S. Senate seat by a majority vote.[5] Byrd's move is said to have influenced Virginia political power for more than twenty years.[3]

He continued to caucus with the Democrats, and extended his Democratic seniority. But like his father, Byrd had a very conservative voting record and was a strong supporter of federal fiscal discipline, as he had been at the state level. In fact he authored, and Congress passed, a floor amendment stating, "Beginning with fiscal year 1981, the total budget outlays of the Federal Government should not exceed its receipts." Consistent with this fiscal policy, Byrd was a minimalist as a producer of legislation - believing less was more.[5]

Byrd easily won reelection in 1976 against Democrat Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. He thereby became the first senator to win election and re-election as an independent.[5] The Republicans did not run a candidate that year and concentrated on carrying Virginia in the presidential election, which they did by the narrowest of margins, for Gerald R. Ford Jr.[3]

Byrd's committee assignments in the senate included the Finance Committee and Armed Services Committee.[3] Even as a senator, Byrd contributed regular editorial content to his newspapers, blending journalism and politics.

In a 1982 interview with the Washington Post, Byrd maintained that his earlier resistance to school desegregation, including the closure of schools, was justified and helped prevent racial violence.[18]

Byrd did not run for reelection in 1982 and returned full-time to his home in Winchester; he and his father had held the "Byrd seat" in the senate for fifty consecutive years. He was succeeded by U.S. Representative Paul S. Trible, who served one term.[5]


Even with his formal retirement from the Senate, Byrd retained his interest, and his independence, in politics; he endorsed Marshall Coleman, the Republican nominee for Governor of Virginia in 1989.[19] He publicly supported Democratic Governor Mark Warner in 2004, although Warner sought to raise taxes and faced conservative opposition.[20] He endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate in the 2012 presidential election.[21]

Byrd enjoyed retirement to his home "Courtfield" in Winchester, and time spent with his nine grandchildren and later his twelve great grandchildren. Byrd's wife of 48 years, Gretchen, died in 1989. He continued to serve as Chairman of the Board of the Star for almost twenty years. In 2003 he was named to the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame in 2003. Byrd became a lecturer at Shenandoah University, and in 1984 the business program was renamed the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business. In 2007 Byrd completed a literary work, Double Trouble: Vignettes From A Life of Politics and Newspapering.[5] On October 20, 2009, with the death of retired U.S. Senator Clifford P. Hansen, a Wyoming Republican, Byrd became the oldest living former senator until his death at the age of 98.

Byrd appeared in the PBS special "Chasing Churchill: In Search of My Grandfather".[22] A show by Winston Churchill's granddaughter, Celia Sandys, in which she travels the world retracing the steps of Churchill and meeting the people he used to know.[23] Byrd recalled experiences he had when Churchill visited his family's home in Virginia and stayed with them for a week.


Byrd died of heart disease on July 30, 2013 at "Courtfield" his home in Winchester, Virginia. At the time Byrd was the 8th oldest individual to have served in the Senate.[24] A tribute published shortly thereafter observed, "The elder Byrd and his son shared a name, a tradition, many political views and an abiding love of Virginia. They also shared a character articulated by none so well as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois: 'There are gentle men in whom gentility finally destroys whatever of iron there was in their souls. There are iron men in whom the iron corroded whatever gentility they possessed. There are men—not many to be sure—in whom the gentility and the iron were preserved in proper balance, each of these attributes to be summoned up as the occasion requires. Such a man was Harry Byrd.'"[25]


  1. ^ http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/12/harry-f-byrd-jr-obituary-101429
  2. ^ Hatch, p.429.
  3. ^ a b c d Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 31, 2013, "Harry F. Byrd Jr. (1914-2013)"
  4. ^ Heinemann, p.107-108.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Winchester Star, July 31, 2013, "Former U.S. Sen. Byrd Jr. Dies"
  6. ^ Hatch, p.473.
  7. ^ Hatch, p.484-485.
  8. ^ Heinemann, pp.13,107.
  9. ^ Heinemann, p.321.
  10. ^ Heinemann, pp.337-347.
  11. ^ Washington Post, September 8, 1956, "Va. Assembly Hears Backers of Stanley Plan"
  12. ^ Heinemann, pp.409-420.
  13. ^ Heinemann, p.418.
  14. ^ Clerk of the House of Delegates, The General Assembly of Virginia 1962-1981 (Richmond, 1983)at p. 92
  15. ^ harch pp.518-19
  16. ^ citation needed
  17. ^ http://historical.elections.virginia.gov/elections/view/78732
  18. ^ "Former senator Harry Byrd Jr. of Virginia dies". USA Today. 30 July 2013. Retrieved 7 October 2014. 
  19. ^ "Former Sen. Byrd Endorses Coleman's Bid". Richmond Times. October 17, 1989. 
  20. ^ Shear, Michael D.; Becker, Jo (February 7, 2004). "Va. Tax Plan Gains Momentum; 2 Senior Fiscal Conservatives Emphasize Need for Increases". 
  21. ^ Zito, Salena. "Byrd's-eye view of Dems dim". TribLive. 
  22. ^ Chasing Churchill: In Search of My Grandfather on IMDb
  23. ^ "Celia Sandys presents PBS documentary". Celiasandys.com. Retrieved 2013-08-05. 
  24. ^ Ostermeier, Eric (July 31, 2013). "Harry Byrd's Death Leaves 167 Living Ex-Senators". Smart Politics. 
  25. ^ Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 11, 2013, Frank B. Atkinson, "Gentility and Iron, The Legacy of Harry F. Byrd Jr."


  • Hatch, Alden (1969). The Byrds of Virginia. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 
  • Heinemann, Ronald L. (1996). Harry Byrd of Virginia. University Press of Virginia. 


  • Byrd, Harry F. (2007). Double Trouble: Vignettes From A Life of Politics and Newspapering. R.R. Donnelly. 

External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Harry Byrd
U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Virginia
Served alongside: Willis Robertson, William Spong, William Scott, John Warner
Succeeded by
Paul Trible
Party political offices
Preceded by
Harry Byrd
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from Virginia
(Class 1)

Succeeded by
George Rawlings
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Clifford Hansen
Oldest Living United States Senator
(Sitting or Former)

October 20, 2009 – July 30, 2013
Succeeded by
Edward Brooke