It was to be a day of celebration for the people of West Virginia.
More than 60,000 from across the state jammed the new Mountaineer Field on Sept. 6, 1980, for the inaugural football game, in the imposing structure that many thought would help assure long-term national standing and respect. Their dreams were soon realized as West Virginia University turned into a perennial national power in collegiate football and, through television, earned the Mountain state greater understanding and respect.
Even John Denver was there for the event to sing “Country Roads,” thanks to then Gov. Jay Rockefeller who personally paid for him to attend the memorable occasion. But the real star of the day was Sen. Robert Byrd who could not remember ever attending a college football game.
The distinguished senator arrived at the home of the university president 30 minutes early to deliver a succinct and impassioned message:
• All the people of West Virginia want is to be “respected on their merit.”
• Always remember the citizens you serve, and you will be “blessed with the support you need to be successful.”
• “Nothing” is more important than higher education to them.
• They want their children to have opportunities to grow, “a chance to excel” in all walks of life.
• Too many people do not appreciate the appetite for the hard work of West Virginians, whether it is “in the coal mines or on the battlefield for their country.” And,
• “I will be there for you when the interests of the people are at issue.”
And indeed he was. No one did more for the growth and development of WVU than Sen. Byrd, a man whose name is proudly remembered and displayed throughout the campus at Morgantown.
The senator asked me and my wife, Gretchen, to join him for “the ride of our lives” to the new stadium in a state patrol car.
Every few feet the car was stopped by hordes of adoring people who treated him like a family member. They even rocked the car on a number of occasions. He delighted in the attention and remembered countless names and stories about them and their communities.
Gretchen and I feared that we would not be in time for the dedication ceremony, but we arrived with four minutes to spare. The ovation for Sen. Byrd was thunderous while others received polite applause. He stayed until halftime before leaving for Washington and a weekend of study for a controversial Senate debate and vote.
He loved the U.S. Senate but loved the state of West Virginia more. An orphan, he came from the impoverished hollows of his native state and served in the Senate for more than half a century. Robert Byrd was 92 when he died, and he had served in Congress longer than anyone in our nation’s history.
I saw him a year before his passing in Washington, and he asked me if I remembered his words on that fall day in 1980. Not only did I remember, I told him that I had taken notes. He smiled approvingly.