WASHINGTON — As Sen. Robert C. Byrd was being laid to rest after a week of memorials, a niece eulogized him Tuesday as a person who suffered from dyslexia. The revelation surprised others in Byrd's family, who later said they had no knowledge that the West Virginia senator suffered from the learning disability.
The 92-year-old senator, who served in Congress longer than anyone else, received a 21-gun salute as he was buried in a suburban Washington cemetery near his wife of nearly 69 years, Erma.
The final farewell focused on the man away from the institution he revered – the son of coal miners, the widowed husband, grandfather and great-grandfather who earned a college degree at 77 and learned to swim at 90.
"This is the Byrd we didn't know," said West Virginia Wesleyan Professor Robert Rupp. "He really was very private in his life and that would be unusual (among senators) now. He became powerful but not rich, powerful but not a celebrity."
Byrd's niece, Jassowyn "Jackie" Sale Hurd, told mourners gathered at Memorial Baptist Church that he once counseled her on her own dyslexia.
"He shared with me something that's probably going to surprise you all," she said. "He's dyslexic, too."
The statement stunned those who had worked with Byrd over the years. Brief interviews with more than a dozen current and former Senate staffers turned up none who saw any indication that Byrd, the author of five books and a master of the complex appropriations process, ever struggled with his ability to read.
Later Tuesday, Byrd's family cast doubt on whether it was true.
"Perhaps he had some difficulty reading in his later years, but the family does not know of dyslexia," said Byrd spokesman Jesse Jacobs. "They believe he was probably being consoling to her and offering her words of encouragement."
Whether Byrd really suffered from dyslexia or was just comforting his niece, Hurd said that he inspired her to try to earn her own diploma.
"He said, 'Jackie, I have worked so hard,'" Hurd said in her eulogy, describing the conversation with Byrd. "'Honey, that's what you're going to have to do. If you can't find anybody to help you, then you have to help yourself.'"
Grandson Eric Fatemi, an aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee that Byrd chaired, recalled how growing old in the Senate conferred a valuable longevity on his grandfather – and difficulties.
Two years, ago, Fatemi recalled, lobbyists and reporters were circulating rumors about whether Byrd was fit to continue serving as chairman of the powerful panel, and how soon he would relinquish the gavel. Byrd derided the backbiting as "gossip," but he announced in November 2008 that he would step down.
"It was the correct decision, but it was not easy for this proud man to make," Fatemi said.
On the other hand, Byrd was able to quiz his grandson on American history for some four decades, from Fatemi's childhood up until the last time the two saw each other, on Father's Day.
Byrd asked: Who discovered America? Christopher Columbus, Fatemi said he answered. Byrd asked if his grandson remembered that question from years ago.
"How could I forget," Fatemi said. Byrd used to pay a quarter for the correct answer, Fatemi's first brush with "the awesome power of the appropriations process."
(This version CORRECTS to show that Byrd announced in November 2008 that he would step down, not that he stepped down at that time.)