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Love letters come in many forms. An e-mail, a handwritten note on a bar napkin or even a serenade. But the late Sen. Robert Byrd offered his wife, Erma, the rarest token of devotion: years of tributes to her, issued from the floor of the Senate.
The Congressional Record is an unlikely place to find a great love story, but its archives tell a touching tale of the Byrds’ 68-year marriage. When Robert Byrd died last year after a 57-year Congressional career, the West Virginia Democrat left behind dozens of references to Erma in the public record. Taken together, they reveal a sentimental man who believed he had found his soulmate on a West Virginia schoolyard — and who never tired of praising her in the context of his other true love, the Senate.
Senate Historian Don Ritchie notes that although the chamber is mostly a place for conducting business, many Senators have used floor speeches over the years to show affection for one another and for their loved ones. “You see these flashes where Senators will reveal their own personal tragedies and triumphs,” Ritchie says. “Sen. Byrd was a courtly gentleman and always paid tribute to women, but Erma was always first among them.”
On their 65th anniversary in 2002, Byrd praised his wife in this passage: “She is my strength in times of fear, my comfort in times of sorrow, my perfect complement. ... She is the reservoir of serenity at which one can slake the thirst of a stressful day.”
And when she died in 2006, he paraphrased a favorite poem, “We Have Lived and Loved Together” by Charles Jefferys, in her honor. “We have lived and loved together through many changing years; we have shared each other’s gladness and wept each others tears; I have known ne’er sorrow that was long unsoothed by Erma, for thy smiles can make a summer where darkness else would be.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), who was the junior West Virginia Senator to Byrd’s senior for most of his Senate career, says the affection that Byrd lavished on his wife in public wasn’t just rhetorical flourish.
“After almost 70 years of marriage, Sen. Byrd still radiated at just the mention of Erma,” Rockefeller says. “He called her the ‘wind beneath this Byrd’s wings.’ Their marriage was truly something to behold.”
Byrd was a great admirer of women. Many of his most poetic odes on the Senate floor were directed to the wives and mothers of colleagues to mark their birthdays or deaths, and he often observed Mother’s Day by reading poems and remembering his aunt who raised him after his mother died when he was a baby. He paid tribute in 2000 to Maureen Mansfield, wife of former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), and he often mentioned Rose Kennedy, the mother of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
“Women,” he said in a 2005 floor speech, “have as many facets as a brilliantly cut diamond.”