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Mrs. Byrd would drive him to school while he did homework, a routine they settled into for the decade it took him to earn the law degree from American University night classes. Mr. Byrd earned a college diploma from Marshall University at the age of 77.

Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who served with Mr. Byrd in the Senate for the last 25 years.

Mr. Byrd said he deeply regretted participating in a filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and believed joining the Ku Klux Klan when he was 24 in 1942 was his life’s greatest mistake, acknowledging its stain on his legacy.

“It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation,” Mr. Byrd wrote in his 2005 memoir, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”

One gauge of his role in the Senate is to look at how many of its rules he wrote or refined, including the so-called Byrd Rule in the budget process, which complicated Democrats’ efforts this year to pass a health care bill.

And as recently as the past few months Mr. Byrd, looking ever more frail, argued to the Senate Rules Committee against undoing the protections the minority party has in the upper chamber, such as the filibuster.

While some senators with less seniority call for the filibuster rules to be altered, Mr. Byrd said that’s an unwise move.

“I know what it is to be majority leader, and wake up on a Wednesday morning in November, and find yourself a minority leader,” Mr. Byrd told the committee.

That’s exactly what happened in 1980, when President Reagan’s victory ushered in a Republican majority and Mr. Byrd, who was Senate Democrats’ leader, spent the next six years leading them in the minority. He regained the majority leader’s post in 1987, after Democrats recaptured control of the chamber.

And as the longest-serving Democratic senator Mr. Byrd was president pro tem of the Senate for more than 10 years, putting him in the line of presidential succession behind the vice president and the speaker of the House.

His rhetorical skills were legendary, rivaling those of his friend and fellow long-serving senator, Edward M. Kennedy, who passed away last year. He peppered his floor speeches with references to the Roman Senate or classic literature. Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnedian War” was a favorite source for him.

But often he would also turn his considerable talent toward more gentle subjects, including regularly delivering a speech commemorating Mother’s Day.

“When Senator Byrd speaks, we actually come out of the cloakroom and our offices and listen, enthralled, to the history that he knows, that he quotes from memory,” Sen. Trent Lott said in introducing Mr. Byrd at a lecture in the 1990s. “He has spoken of great historic events and has quoted from the Bible. And yet he has spoken personally, humanly, about the wonders of being a father and a grandfather in such a way that has brought tears to my eyes.”

At one point in 2007 a West Virginia newspaper ran an article that examined his ever-shakier signature as a sign of his deteriorating health.

Mr. Byrd answered in his usual way: he took to the Senate floor and delivered a speech.

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