Impact and grace
August 1, 2013 4 Comments
Virginia lost a remarkable man this week. Former Senator Harry Flood Byrd, Jr., died at age 98. He was an icon of statesmanship, described perfectly by JMU news associate Jim Heffernan (’96) as “A true Virginia gentleman.” I’ve long admired Sen. Byrd, and if you’ll excuse a more personal post than usual, I’d like to write about him today, especially in light of the paltry coverage his passing received in national news.
CNN, you see, made no mention of Sen. Byrd — even though he had been the oldest living former U.S. Senator, the first to win re-election as an independent against major party candidates, a fierce advocate of fiscal responsibility, and the embodiment of statesmanship. CNN was remiss, as were other networks. Virginia papers did better, including a wonderful piece in Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record. CNN, instead, gave banner coverage to Eileen Brennan and Ariel Castro.
But it was Senator’s passing that I was most interested in.
He was indeed a gentleman. He always appreciated the smallest kindness and never failed to acknowledge it, often by letter, penned with genuine sincerity. I have one of those letters. As a teenager heading up High School Students for Byrd (a job far less impressive than the title implies), I led the Pledge of Allegiance at a large Richmond gathering. What I remember most acutely, however, is Mrs. Mims, wife of then-DNR editor D. Lathan Mims, helping a desperately nervous teenager assemble her red, ostrich-feather-jacketed dress. It was part of the grace that swarmed around the Senator’s world — and I felt it in the dressing room and the banquet hall that evening.
As an eager campaigner, I learned about the man, his reputation, his history, and his ethics. The next spring at a luncheon on Capital Hill following his successful — and historic — re-election, we, the youngest volunteers, gathered at his invitation. The Senator told us the story of running as a young boy to get mustard for the visiting Mr. Churchill — and he thanked us. That day, May Day, was eventful in other ways as well. After the luncheon ended, we walked out of the Senate Office Building to find ourselves behind police barricades set up to control legions of anti-war protesters — a novel position to be in. We also found our car had been towed, requiring us to walk 10 D.C. blocks— me wearing fashionable but blazingly uncomfortable yellow shoes with daisies on the toe.
I’ve always remembered the striking contrast of that day — the graciousness of the Senator and the growling angst of the protesters. To me, young and impressionable, it was the Senator who earned my respect that day. Few gestures in life are more memorable, beneficial and lasting than a humble thank you. Kindness, I’ve learned, always trumps anger.
Sen. Byrd’s graciousness was not surprising for a man widely known for his integrity — and for his ability to find compromise without animosity. This kind of man — or woman — can persuade others to his point of view without belittling them or denigrating their ideas. The Senator was, of course, not perfect, particularly in Jim Crow-era Virginia, but perfection is not a requisite for integrity. Consistency is — and he was true to what he believed.
I take away from his life enormous respect for his kind and gracious demeanor — his brand of impact with grace. It is this part of the man that I hope will be best remembered and most copied. It is a kind of dignity flagging in modern life.
I hope it also remains a signature element of his legacy, which will continue through the numerous scholarships he established, including one at JMU. The Byrd-Mims Journalism Scholarship, which also honors D. Lathan Mims.
The Byrd-Mims Journalism Scholarships were enhanced in 2009 by a $250,000 donation, to JMU’s journalism scholarship endowment, from former Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd Jr., whose family owns Harrisonburg’s Daily News-Record/Rockingham Publishing. In 2013, together with an earlier donation from the Byrd family, the Byrd-Mims Scholarships will now support four $2,950 journalism scholarships. Awards will be based on commitment to print journalism, on academic achievement, and possibly financial need….The scholarships honor their benefactor, Sen. Byrd, and his longtime friend and associate D. Lathan Mims, who helped coordinate the Senator’s campaigns, and who served for many years as editor and general manager of the Daily News-Record. (from SMAD’s website: http://smad.jmu.edu/schol_byrdmims.html)
Mr. Mims, I must add, was the same kind of consumate gentleman as his friend, the Senator. He gave me my first job — a proofreader on the graveyard shift at the DNR. Leaving every night at 1:00 a.m. on vacant Harrisonburg streets while the presses started to roll, I remember the atmosphere of working for someone who was gracious, kind and professional.
Few things are more lasting than a scholarship set up in perpetuity. Earlier this summer, JMU lost one of its own, the Zane Showker Professor of Management Paul Bierly. Paul, a man like Sen. Byrd and Mr. Mims, had enormous grace and impact. Through a scholarship set up in his memory, his impact will continue as well.
An actress and a criminal may garner more lines of press today, but in the long run, it will be the Senator’s legacy that will last. His legacy — and Lathan Mims’ and Paul Bierly’s legacies — will continue changing the lives of students who are eager to learn and to grow, until they themselves — someday — may change the world.
And perhaps, the scholarship recipients of the future will also reflect the characters of their benefactors and act similarly — with impact and grace.