If you follow national politics, you’ve likely seen or heard references lately to the “Byrd Rule” as it pertains to how federal budgets are debated—and eventually passed—in the legislature.
The reference is to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who served a record eight terms as a Democrat from West Virginia. Byrd is credited with limiting the act of reconciliation, bills of which are immune to filibuster.
As leader of the minority Democrats in the Senate, Byrd in 1985 crafted the rule that allows any senator to object to any add-ons not related to a budget or reducing a deficit.
For decades since in the Senate, it’s been known as the “Byrd Rule,” and the process of trying to get items to qualify is now known as a “Byrd Bath.”
Recent stories I’ve read have reported that Byrd was born in “Appalachia,” but more specifically he took his first breaths in North Wilkesboro.
Byrd’s early life is pure Dickensian in nature.
He was born Cornelius Sale Jr. at 2 p.m. on Nov. 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro to Cornelius Calvin Sale, a 44-year-old laborer who was also born in Wilkes, and Ada Kirby Sale, a 38-year-old housewife.
His birth certificate, which is on file at the Wilkes County Courthouse, misspells his birth name as “Sales.”
According to Jay Anderson’s history of North Wilkesboro’s first 100 years, Byrd’s birth family lived off Toll Road, an extension of Eighth Street, where his father was the gatekeeper for the bridge on the road.
On Nov. 10, 1918 — the official end of World War I, Armistice Day — his 31-year-old mother died, a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic that killed millions globally.
As she lay dying, Ada asked that her nearly-year-old baby be raised her husband’s sister, Vlurma Sale Byrd, and her husband, Titus Dalton Byrd, according to Byrd’s 2005 autobiography.
Vlurma and Titus adopted “Little Calvin,” as he was known then, and took him to West Virginia when he was 2.
They also gave him a new name, Robert Carlyle Byrd.
Byrd wrote in his autobiography that his adopted parents loved him and treated him as their own. “One’s family is the most important thing in life,” he said.
Titus was a coal miner in the hills of West Virginia, a hardscrabble life that shaped Robert’s childhood and adult life. Robert didn’t learn his original name until he was 16 and his real birthday until he was 54.
Robert’s biological father, who stayed in North Carolina, died in 1945. He is buried at Mountlawn Memorial Park in North Wilkesboro.
Byrd returned to Wilkes as a U.S. senator in 1975 to dedicate the statue of Revolutionary War hero Benjamin Cleveland beside the old county courthouse in Wilkesboro.
He spent a good portion of his 51-year Senate career making amends for being a former Ku Klux Klan leader and filibustering against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. Still, the adopted child was revered in his adopted state of West Virginia.
Byrd said famously, “It is money, money, money! Not ideas, not principles, but money that reigns supreme in American politics.”
The North Wilkesboro native died in 2010 at the age of 92, still in office. His “Byrd Rule” is still talked about and debated today.