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Bob Byrd stood up for what’s right

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

It often happens that a leader’s early life tells volumes about his character. Here’s a story from U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., about his first job at a grocery store in Stotesbury, W.Va., a mining town where he’d worked his way up to meat cutter in 1935.

Briefly flush with cash after each payday, the miners’ wives would stock up on food. So, the grocery store laid in extra supplies of perishables, and customers lined up.

The wife of Stotesbury’s superintendent of mines, Mrs. Joseph Lewis, insisted on being waited on by the head meat cutter, and she never stood in line. Instead, she’d walk up to the cash register and the top meat cutter would turn to her as soon as he’d finished with a customer.

One day, the head clerks were out and Byrd waited on customers himself. When Mrs. Lewis arrived, Byrd paid no attention and she grew increasingly agitated. Red-faced after young Byrd had served several people, she demanded to know when he intended to wait on her.

“Mrs. Lewis,” he said, “when my mom comes to the store, she has to get in line along with everyone else, and I think you should do the same.”

Astonished, Mrs. Lewis made a beeline for the manager, who later praised Byrd for standing up for what he believed in.

A bit earlier, the newlywed Byrd had applied to the mining company for an apartment, and Mr. Lewis would have to approve it. Byrd figured he’d lose both the apartment and his job.

The next time Mr. Lewis came for his daily Coca-Cola, Byrd braced for bad news. But the superintendent gave him the room, finished his Coke and left.

Four decades later, Byrd was enduring some “very vocal” opposition from college students after a speech in Florida when a woman stood up and unleashed a ringing defense of the senator, whom she’d known since he was a young man.

After dressing down the students for their rudeness, she sat down to applause. It was Mrs. Lewis.

—Adapted from Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, Robert C. Byrd, WVU Press.

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