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On the Marshall University campus, there are two buildings that stand side by side. One is the Arthur Weisberg Family Applied Engineering Complex Engineering School. The other is the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center. They represent two very different West Virginia futures.

As reported by The Herald-Dispatch at the time of his death, Arthur Weisberg served in the U.S. Army with valor in Europe during World War II and graduated from City College of New York with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. He took a job with Halstead Industries to build a steel mill in New Haven.

In 1952, with a bankroll of just $2,500, Weisberg hit the road, calling on “mom-and-pop” grocery and hardware stores, selling light bulbs, extension cords and fuses out of the back of his truck. He went on to found State Electric Supply Co. in 1952 and Service Wire Co. in 1968, both of which have provided jobs for hundreds, even thousands, of West Virginians over past 70 years.

The late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was a politician famed for his ability to bring federal money to the state.

According to Politico, in 2007, speaking at a dedication on Marshall’s campus, Byrd bragged, “Our efforts to construct this facility and create a stronger foundation for a biotech industry here in West Virginia began — where? With a visit to my office.” Byrd told the assemblage he had “rolled up my sleeves to do the work in Congress to secure the federal funding. Yeah man, you’re looking at Big Daddy! Big Daddy, rolled up my sleeves, man, yes, I did, to do the work in Congress, yeah man. I been there longer than anybody else. Yeah, man. Hallelujah!”

Both Byrd and Weisberg brought money and development to West Virginia. Art Weisberg made products that people were willing to pay for and went into buildings and service lines across the country. Byrd lived long enough to attain a position in the Senate that allowed him to steer a disproportionate share of federal tax money to dozens of projects in West Virginia, many that soon bore his name. Not the names of the taxpayers who paid for them. His.

Many people saw this as the work of a canny fox, tricking those Washington fat cats and getting a greater share for his people. It was sometimes justified as our way to get back some of the wealth that had been somehow stolen from West Virginia. That played into the longstanding excuse for West Virginia’s failure to catch up economically with the rest of the country, that we had somehow been cheated.

Allow me to suggest that what Byrd did was not really helpful to West Virginia’s development in the long run. He continued, and encouraged, the injured self-image that allows some to justify the fact that, as was recently reported, West Virginia gets two federal dollars for every dollar it pays into the federal treasury.

Until we get past the idea that we are somehow owed a debt by the rest of the country, we will fail to develop the sort of entrepreneurs represented by Weisberg, who saw hard work and initiative, not a federal dole, as the way to advancement for his state.

Thank you, Art.

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