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Byrd worked as a gas station attendant, a grocery store clerk, a shipyard welder during World War II, and a butcher before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County from 1947 to 1950. Byrd became a local celebrity after a radio station in Beckley began broadcasting his "fiery fundamentalist lessons." In 1950, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, where he served from December 1950 to December 1952.
In 1951, Byrd was among the official witnesses of the execution of Harry Burdette and Fred Painter, which was the first use of the electric chair in West Virginia. In 1965 the state abolished capital punishment, with the last execution having occurred in 1959.
Early in his career Byrd attended Beckley College, Concord College, Morris Harvey College, Marshall College, and George Washington University Law School, and joined the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.
Byrd began night classes at American University Washington College of Law in 1953, while a member of the United States House of Representatives. He earned his JD cum laude a decade later, by which time he was a U.S. Senator. President John F. Kennedy spoke at the commencement ceremony on June 10, 1963, and presented the graduates their diplomas, including Byrd. Byrd completed law school in an era when undergraduate degrees were not a requirement. He later decided to complete his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, and in 1994 he graduated summa cum laude from Marshall University.