Harry Clifton Byrd, one of six children of oysterman and county commissioner William Franklin Byrd and Sallie May Byrd, was born on February 12, 1889, in Crisfield, Maryland. After graduating from Crisfield High School in 1905, he attended Maryland Agricultural College, starring on the football, baseball, and track teams. In 1908, Byrd graduated second in his class with a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering.
For three years after graduation, Byrd played football and did graduate work in law and journalism at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and Western Maryland College. He then covered sports for the Washington Star and coached high school football. In 1912, Byrd pitched for the San Francisco Seals, a semi-professional baseball team in the Pacific Coast League, but returned to Maryland that same year.
In 1913, Byrd married Katherine Dunlop Turnbull, although their marriage ended in divorce twenty years later. They had three sons, Harry, Sterling, and William, and one daughter, Evelyn.
After Byrd's return from playing for the San Francisco Seals, Maryland Agricultural College hired him as a football coach and an instructor in English and history. Because of his good sportsmanship and numerous victories, his reputation as a coach grew, and, in 1915, he became director of athletics. After he was appointed assistant to the president in 1918, Byrd became a leading spokesman for the unification of Maryland Agricultural College with the Baltimore schools to form the University of Maryland and helped plan the legislation that became the Consolidation Act of 1920. By 1932, he had risen to become vice president of the university.
Byrd remained an enthusiastic supporter of his alma mater as he moved upward through the administrative ranks. In 1921, he named the student newspaper the Diamondback and, in 1933, was directly involved in the adoption of the diamondback terrapin as the University of Maryland mascot.
Byrd became acting president of the university in July 1935 and was officially appointed president in February 1936. Despite criticisms that he was an authoritarian president, Byrd proved to be a popular and charismatic leader who facilitated the significant growth of the University of Maryland in the mid-twentieth century. During his tenure, the annual budget, the number of facilities, the faculty, and student enrollment expanded dramatically. Under Byrd's leadership, the University of Maryland also gained national attention as new educational programs such as American Studies were introduced. Byrd's successful efforts to secure funding for the university from the state and federal governments as well as from private sources supported this growth in size and reputation.
In January 1954, Byrd resigned from the presidency to run an unsuccessful campaign against Theodore McKeldin for governor of Maryland. In 1964, he lost his bid for the Democratic nomination for U. S. Senate and, in 1966, made an unsuccessful run for U. S. Congress. However, from 1958 into the 1960s, Byrd did hold several gubernatorial appointments: Chairman of the Maryland Tidewater Fisheries Commission, Maryland Commissioner to the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, and Chairman of the Commission on Chesapeake Bay Affairs.
In addition, Byrd was active in the business world as well as fraternal, civic, and international organizations. He was one of three men involved in the merger that resulted in the formation of the Suburban Trust Company, where he later served as vice president. He was also involved in real estate and construction businesses. A member of several fraternal organizations, Byrd served as Supreme Governor of the Loyal Order of the Moose in 1962. Additionally, he organized the College Park Rotary Club and became its first president. Lastly, Byrd was a member of the Defense Orientation Conference Association (D. O. C. A.), a national defense organization which facilitated his travels to other countries.
On October 2, 1970, Byrd died of a heart condition at University Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.