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Remembering Senator Jennings Randolph

by Senator Robert C. Byrd and James E. Casto

Former senator Jennings Randolph, one of the chief architects of the legislation that created ARC in 1965, died May 8, 1998. As a member and later chairman of the Senate Public Works Committee, he worked with President Johnson to shepherd the original ARC legislation through Congress, and was the chief sponsor and active champion of every succeeding ARC legislative campaign until he retired from the Senate in 1985.

Eulogy to Senator Jennings Randolph
by Senator Robert C. Byrd

With countless West Virginians, and with his many friends across America, I am saddened by the recent passing of my longtime friend and colleague, Senator Jennings Randolph.

Jennings Randolph was a man possessed of a profound love for West Virginia and for the nation. More, he was a man of seemingly boundless energy and limitless horizons. Both in government and in his several other fields of interest and expression, Senator Randolph seemed constantly to be looking for ways to assist other people to achieve their own potential, or for avenues by which others might attain a better life for themselves.

He was, paradoxically perhaps, an indefatigably optimistic realist. Jennings Randolph knew that life often demands struggle and many times ends in defeat; but for every problem, Jennings believed that good-willed, intelligent, and decent men and women could find solutions to their mutual and individual problems, if they united their talents in a mutual effort to overcome frustration or evil, or if they but reached into their deepest resources of character. That kind of thinking contributed to his leadership in establishing the Appalachian Regional Commission, an act for which the people of Appalachia will long be indebted.

An educator, writer, public speaker, aviation enthusiast, corporate executive, representative, and senator, Jennings Randolph was a master of many talents. I was honored to serve with him as a colleague, and honored to call him my friend.

If events can foreshadow destinies, perhaps Jennings Randolph's destiny was outlined at his birth, 96 years ago, in 1902. One of Senator Randolph's father's closest friends was the great William Jennings Bryan. Jennings was fond of recounting the anecdote that his father was with Bryan shortly after Jennings' birth. When told of the arrival of a new Randolph male, Bryan asked Mr. Randolph, "Have you named this boy?" "No," the father replied. "Then why don't you give him part of my name as a good Democrat?"

So Jennings Randolph received his name from the perennial presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan—a name that Jennings never tarnished and that he burnished brilliantly in his own career.

I recall another story that Jennings Randolph sometimes told out of his boyhood in Salem, West Virginia. According to Jennings, Salem had a water tower that stood high on a hill above the town.

Jennings said that he told his father and mother, "If I could just get a long pole and . . . climb up on that tank, and hold out that pole, I believe I could touch the sky." That is a story that shows the theme of this man's life—the tale of a boy who wanted to touch the sky. And when that boy became a man, touch the sky he did.

For 26 years, I shared with Jennings Randolph the privilege of representing and serving West Virginia in the United States Senate. That partnership I shall cherish always. No man could have asked for a more generous, dedicated, or thoughtful colleague than I had in Jennings Randolph. And I know from my own experience that Jennings Randolph was certainly a man whose touch reached the sky. In West Virginia to this day, thousands of people bless his name for the deeds that he did for them as a friend and as a faithful public servant.

One of Jennings Randolph's greatest areas of ongoing contribution was to the development and advancement of air flight.

On November 6, 1948, with a professional pilot at the controls, Jennings Randolph flew from Morgantown, West Virginia, to Washington National Airport in a propeller plane fueled with gasoline made from coal. Now, that was just like Jennings Randolph—out there pioneering, not only in flight, but also in the use of fuel in that plane that had a West Virginia source—coal. Certainly, that project was an act of faith, for which many remember Senator Randolph.

Not as well remembered is Congressman Jennings Randolph's introduction in 1946 of legislation to create a national air museum. Three decades later, on July 4, 1976, Senator Randolph dedicated the National Air and Space Museum complex on the Mall in Washington—noted today as one of the most popular tourist attractions in the nation's capital. Jennings Randolph was an advocate of numerous other items of vital legislation as well—legislation to aid the handicapped and black-lung victims, legislation to promote clean water and clean air, legislation to provide vocational and career education, and the legislation that created the National Peace Academy in 1983.

Tribute to a Pioneer
by James E. Casto

Washington, D.C., is a city crowded with monuments and memorials, but those in search of a fitting tribute to former senator Jennings Randolph should seek it not in Washington, but in the American heartland, especially in his native West Virginia and in the other Appalachian states. Highways and bridges, hospitals and clinics, schools and libraries—these are his lasting legacy.

Randolph, who died May 8 at age 96, was the last of the New Deal Democrats. When he retired from the U.S. Senate in 1985, he closed the book on a remarkable political career that spanned the FDR and Reagan eras.

It was 1933 and the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression when a young Randolph arrived in Washington, elected to the House of Representatives from West Virginia on the same ticket as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The new congressman had sold his car to pay off his campaign debt and was virtually penniless, so he went to a D.C. bank to seek a $1,000 loan. The banker asked him what collateral he had. None, he said, except his job as a congressman. "Well," the banker replied, "I know you will be here at least two years, so we'll give you the loan."

Randolph served in the House for 14 years, and during that time worked closely not only with the president but also with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor Roosevelt took great personal interest in a project that saw the establishment of homestead communities, where poor families might purchase modest homes and combine limited farming with part-time work in handicrafts and small industry. Several such communities were established in West Virginia, including one, Eleanor, that was named for the first lady. She frequently visited the state to inspect the communities, and on such trips Randolph was always at her side. Over the years, Randolph bluntly rejected criticisms of Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

"Was it wrong," he asked, "to take the unemployed of this country and put them back to work building roads and bridges? Was it wrong for FDR to reopen the banks of this great nation with guaranteed deposits so people no longer would face the threat of losing their lifelong savings? Was it wrong to provide electricity to the country's rural areas? Or to take the working children out of the lofts and the darkness?"

Randolph frequently recalled the March 4, 1933, inaugural at which FDR took the presidential oath of office for the first time. It was a gray, overcast day. But as the new president delivered his inaugural address, the sun broke through the clouds. "It was a good omen for the beginning of the New Deal and the uplifting of the spirit which Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt brought to a disheartened America."

In 1946, Randolph, defeated for reelection, went to work for Capital Airlines, one of the many small carriers that have long since disappeared in airline industry mergers. He performed various public-relations chores for the airline and awaited his chance to get back into politics. That opportunity came in 1958, when West Virginia senator M.M. Neely died. Randolph was elected to complete the remainder of Neely's term; he then went on to win election to four six-year terms—and become one of the Senate's true legends.

Dignified. Extremely courteous. Forceful. Concerned. Randolph was all these and more.

And yes, he loved to talk. How he loved to talk. Congressional colleagues often held their breath at committee hearings when he proposed to "say a few words" on the subject. It was not for nothing that the young Randolph boy had been named after the gifted political orator William Jennings Bryan.

I recall my own first meeting with Randolph. It was the early 1960s, and I was the greenest of green reporters on the Huntington Herald-Dispatch. The senator was in town to deliver a speech, and the harried city editor, always trying to juggle his few reporters, told me, "Call him up at his hotel and see if he's got a text we can quote something from. Then we won't have to tie somebody up by sending them to the speech."

Calling, I got Randolph on the line and learned he didn't have a text. "But come by and I'll be happy to give you a quote or two." When I knocked on his door, he answered it in his stocking feet, politely invited me in, and told me to have a seat. I asked a question—it's been too many years to recall the subject—and Randolph launched into his answer. As he talked, I started taking notes. He kept talking and I kept writing, filling page after page in my notebook, scribbling at a feverish pace. Finally he ran down. "Did you have something else you wanted to ask?" he queried. "No, thanks," I blushed. I knew I already had more than would ever end up in type.

The thing is—and this is what's so difficult to convey to those who didn't know him—such bursts of oratory weren't just empty words to Randolph. He meant every one of them. Deeply.

And he was able to translate that concern into historic legislation.

His crowning achievement was the 1971 passage of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age across the United States from 21 to 18. He introduced the amendment 11 times before Congress finally approved it. In his final years, he worried that so few young people took advantage of that right.

He helped create a federal program to help the blind and sponsored a long list of bills for education and the environment. He wrote the first federal airport aid act in 1946 and later sponsored the legislation that established the immensely popular National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

And Randolph, perhaps more than any other individual, can be considered the father of the Appalachian Regional Commission. He sponsored the Appalachian Regional Development Act of 1965, which established the Commission, and over the years was a key and staunch supporter of the Commission's program.

Failing health stilled the legendary Randolph oratory years ago. He spent his final years in a nursing home. A generation grew to adulthood unfamiliar with him and his record of achievement. That's unfortunate. Because in his life, Jennings Randolph accomplished exactly what he wanted to do. On his retirement from the Senate, he recalled his first campaign in 1932. "I had an overriding desire to help people to upgrade, to benefit our people."

And that's exactly what he did.

James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.