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 Mr. 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.
“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 Mr. Byrd over the years. Brief interviews with more than a dozen current and former Senate staffers turned up none who saw any indication that Mr. Byrd, the author of five books and a master of the complex appropriations process, ever struggled with his ability to read.
Later Tuesday, Mr. 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.”
Grandson Eric Fatemi, an aide to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Mr. Byrd long chaired, recalled how growing old in the Senate conferred a valuable longevity on his grandfather - and difficulties.
Two years, ago, Mr. Fatemi recalled, lobbyists and reporters were circulating rumors about whether Mr. Byrd was fit to continue serving as chairman of the powerful panel, and how soon he would relinquish the gavel. Mr. Byrd derided the backbiting as “gossip,” but he announced in November 2008 that he would step down as chairman.
“It was the correct decision, but it was not easy for this proud man to make,” Mr. Fatemi said.
On the other hand, Mr. Byrd was able to quiz his grandson on American history for some four decades, from Mr. Fatemi’s childhood up until the last time the two saw each other, on Father’s Day.
Mr. Fatemi recalled that when he correctly identified Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America, the senator asked his grandson if he remembered that question from years ago.
“How could I forget?” Mr. Fatemi replied. Mr. Byrd used to pay a quarter for the correct answer, a reward Mr. Fatemi described as his first brush with “the awesome power of the appropriations process.”