Born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1917, Robert Byrd lost his mother, who had contracted influenza, before he was a year old. He was adopted by an aunt and her coal-miner husband, Dalton Byrd, and grew up in the coal camps of West Virginia.
As a boy, Byrd collected his neighbors' garbage and fed it to the hogs that he raised to earn extra money. He attended a two-room school and completed 12 grades in 10 years, graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1934. Unable to afford college tuition, Byrd sought employment wherever he found an opportunity, pumping gas at a filling station, working as a produce salesman, and then becoming a meat cutter.
During World War II, Byrd worked as a welder in the construction yards of Baltimore and Tampa. When the war was over, he returned to West Virginia with a new vision of what his home state and his country could be. In 1946, he made his first run for political office and was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates.
After two terms, Byrd was elected to the West Virginia Senate and then to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms. Finally, in 1958, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served there longer than anyone else in West Virginia's history.
Byrd earned his law degree, cum laude, from American University in 1963, after 10 years of night classes. He also earned a bachelor's degree in political science, summa cum laude, from Marshall University in 1994.
In 1977, his Democratic colleagues elected Byrd as their leader, a position he held for six consecutive terms. He served as Senate majority leader for a total of six years and as Senate minority leader for six years. On two different occasions, he chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee. Byrd had the distinction of having held more Senate leadership positions than any other lawmaker in Senate history.
In 2000, Byrd was elected to the Senate for an eighth consecutive term, making him the only person in history to achieve that milestone. In 2001, the West Virginia Legislature named him "West Virginian of the 20th Century."
In early 2000, the Robert C. Byrd Youth Summit gathered high school students from across West Virginia to find commonsense ways to end youth violence. When addressing youth about success in life, Byrd said, "Success comes through personal enterprise, hard work, and proven productivity. These are the foundation blocks of our free-enterprise economic system and our democracy."