Former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Conley F. Byrd Sr. of Redfield died Saturday. He was 89.
Byrd was first elected to the supreme court in 1966 and served until 1980.
“I probably should have been a lawyer but I didn’t want to compete with my dad,” said Dr. Conley F. Byrd Jr. of Redfield. “He was already on the supreme court, at the top of the pinnacle, and what could I do to equal that?”
Byrd Jr. said when his father ran for a seat on the supreme court, he and his younger brother Paul went with their father to 73 of the state’s 75 counties to campaign.
“The pair of us would walk down the street handing out cards asking people to consider voting for our daddy,” Byrd Jr. said. “While we were doing that, Daddy was at the courthouse talking to people, and he would talk to every lawyer in the county wherever we went.”
Byrd Jr. also said the campaign was on a tight budget.
“I think he spent less than $12,000 on a statewide campaign,” Byrd Jr. said. “Momma was back home running the campaign center from the back porch. They put in a WATS line and people from all over the place would come over and call people all over the state asking them to vote for Daddy.”
That tight budget was also felt at meal times on the campaign trail, he said.
“When we would go into a restaurant and the waitress would ask what Paul and I wanted for dessert, Daddy always said, ‘It’s apple pie or nothing,’” Byrd Jr. said. “Apple pie was his favorite. One time, we were in Pine Bluff and we were campaigning downtown and went into a restaurant and when the waitress asked what we wanted for dessert, Daddy answered ‘apple pie or nothing.’”
Byrd Jr. said (the late) Dave Wallis, who ran an advertising agency, was also in the restaurant and told the waitress, “‘I’m buying. Bring these boys a piece of chess pie’ and that was the best pie I ever put in my mouth.”
He said his father was “an opinionated man,” going on to say that while he was on the supreme court, “One year, Daddy set the record for writing the most majority opinions and the most minority opinions.
“Eighty-five percent of those minority opinions either became case law or the legislature changed the laws to reflect Daddy’s opinion,” Byrd Jr. said. “They are still teaching those cases in law school today.”
Byrd Sr. retired from the high court in 1980 with severe and permanent back injuries he had received after being involved in several automobile accidents after his car was hit from behind each time.
Before going to law school, the senior Byrd served in the Navy in the Pacific Fleet during World War II and his son said that service shaped his father’s values and beliefs.
“He was a radar guy and was there right after Iwo Jima, which was a terrific blood bath,” Byrd Jr. said. “He never talked about any of it until the last few years and never with us kids. Someone else would come around and we would hear bits and pieces of the story.”
That military service also made Byrd Sr. a patriot, his son said, explaining that one time, he and his father went to see (former) President Ronald Reagan when Reagan was in Little Rock.
“That was one of the handful of things Daddy and I did together,” he said. “That was right after the John Hinkley incident and a balloon popped and daddy jumped up and scanned the crowd because he was going to get whoever was trying to get the president.”
Unlike his younger brother and a sister, Byrd Jr. did not go to law school, deciding instead to become a veterinarian. A second sister is married to a federal judge.
“On my first day at the University of Arkansas (at Fayetteville) as a freshman, Daddy took me in and introduced me to the president of the college,” Byrd Jr. said. “I asked him why and he said ‘you never know when you’re going to need some help.’”
He said that day came later when he was trying to get into veterinary school but was having trouble getting in to see the dean of the agriculture department, who had to sign off on the application.
“I had an appointment and sat in his office while other people were coming in and out and after about two hours past the time of my appointment, I walked out and told the secretary I had to go,” Byrd Jr. said. “I walked right over to the president’s office and when he asked me what he could do for me, I told him I was having trouble getting in to see the dean of the agriculture department. He picked up the phone and made a call and I got in to see the dean right after that.”
Pine Bluff attorney Win Trafford also remembered the senior Byrd, describing him as “A wonderful man.
“He was a common old country boy,” Trafford said. “When he was a justice on the supreme court, I had cases before him and I used to see him in Pine Bluff from time to time.
“He was well known, well respected and I loved him to death,” Trafford said.
Funeral services for Byrd Sr., will be 10 a.m. Wednesday at Sheridan Church of Christ under the direction of Memorial Gardens Funeral Home. Burial will be in Redfield cemetery.