Dignitaries, West Virginians Mourn Sen. Byrd

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Mourners attended a memorial service today for West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the longest serving member of the United States Senate. President Obama told mourners Byrd was "determined to make the most of every last breath."

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The state of West Virginia today paid tribute to Senator Robert C. Byrd, who died on Monday at the age of 92. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both spoke at the memorial service.

Byrd will be buried at Arlington Cemetery on Tuesday, but today was his home state's turn to say goodbye.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Charleston.

DON GONYEA: It started with bluegrass music, a sound that is so much a part of this place.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: The memorial was held outside the State Capitol with bright sunshine bouncing off the building's golden dome. Dignitaries included not just the president and vice president, but former President Bill Clinton and the leadership of the U.S. House and Senate.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin thanked Senator Byrd.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Republican, West Virginia): From highways and hospitals to schools and technology centers, there are more than 50 projects in West Virginia that bear his name, or that of his beloved wife.

GONYEA: Also speaking, Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. She recalled how an ailing Senator Byrd made it to the Senate chamber last Christmas Eve to cast the deciding vote on health care.

Ms. VICKI KENNEDY (Attorney at Law): I was in the gallery and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said: Mr. President, this is for my friend, Ted Kennedy. Aye.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: She pointed out that Senators Byrd and Kennedy started out as adversaries, a reference to Byrd's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Byrd later became a strong advocate for civil rights. And today, a choir named after Martin Luther King Jr. sang at the service.

Obituaries have noted Byrd's affiliation as a young man with the Ku Klux Klan. President Obama, in his eulogy, said he and Byrd talked about that after Mr. Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

President BARACK OBAMA: He said there are things I regretted in my youth. You may - you may know that. And I said none of us are absent, some regrets, senator. That's why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.

GONYEA: President Obama said he'll remember Senator Byrd as his friend. The service ended with a song that was one of Robert Byrd's favorites. It begins with the words: Almost heaven, West Virginia.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Country Road")

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