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.”
But no woman shone as brightly to him as Erma Ora Byrd.
Their story is well-known to Senate-watchers, mostly because Byrd loved to tell and retell it from the chamber. Erma was, as he often noted, the daughter of a coal miner who helped teach him to play the fiddle. They met in high school, and he wooed her with candy that a classmate had given him because he was too poor to buy it himself.
They married in 1937, and he worked as a butcher at a grocery store while Erma kept house and managed their meager finances.
Soon, Byrd launched his political career, a path that would eventually see him become Majority Leader of the Senate and chairman of the Appropriations Committee. The couple raised two daughters and several dogs on which Byrd doted, including his beloved Billy Byrd.
“He always said that Erma was the reason he achieved so much,” Rockefeller says.
Byrd’s speeches, even when ostensibly about weightier topics of the day, often read like a diary of the couple’s life together. Small moments seemed as important as big milestones, and Byrd celebrated them all.
He described how he and Erma fed peanuts to the squirrels and chipmunks in their backyard. How on Saturday nights they watched “Keeping Up Appearances,” which he praised for being a “good, clean comedy.” How they shopped together for groceries at the Giant supermarket in McLean, Va.
In 1988, he reminisced about how, when he was a young House Member attending law school at American University, Erma would pick him up from work on Capitol Hill. “She would ... bring a jar of milk and some white bread and a pork chop and a little jar of peaches,” and he would eat while she drove him to class.
He once recounted how he and Erma read the Bible together every Sunday, working their way over the years through the Old and New Testaments. They celebrated their 63rd anniversary in 2000 by reading the last chapters.
Although she was sometimes the subject of his speeches, often Byrd’s references to Erma were in passing. He nearly always spoke of “Erma and I” when eulogizing friends or celebrating their achievements, as if the two were one.
In fact, Byrd saw the two of them as a team, sometimes indistinguishable from one another. “Erma and I are complete and whole, a total that is more than the sum of its parts,” he said in 2002.