Longtime WV public servant Ken Hechler dies at 102

Ken Hechler, a longtime West Virginia public servant who also advised President Harry S. Truman, questioned Nazi leaders after World War II and was the oldest living former member of Congress in the nation, died Saturday, according to friends. He was 102 years old.

Jefferson County Circuit Judge John Yoder said he was at Hechler’s house for dinner earlier Saturday and got word of Hechler’s death later from his wife, Carol.

Hechler’s political career lasted more than six decades, stretching from the White House to Congress to the West Virginia secretary of state’s office.

He was also a soldier, author, teacher and activist. He shook Theodore Roosevelt’s hand as a boy and wrote a book about his grandfather’s service in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Hechler’s long association with West Virginia began in 1957.

“I got this request in from Marshall College, which was a college in Huntington, West Virginia. They needed an associate professor of political science,” he said in a 1985 interview with Niel S. Johnson for the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “I thought to myself: ‘I visited Huntington when I was at Fort Knox in the Army, and it’s a beautiful city.’”

From there, Hechler quickly ran for and was elected to Congress, where he represented West Virginia for nearly two decades. He spent nearly that long as West Virginia’s secretary of state.

Born on Sept. 20, 1914, in Roslyn, a town on Long Island in New York, Hechler was the son of Charles Henry, an estate superintendent, and Catherine Elizabeth Hauhart Hechler. His grandfather, George Hechler, was a German immigrant.

Hechler received a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1935, where he helped organize campus support for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, much to the chagrin of his staunchly Republican parents. He earned a master’s degree in 1936 and Ph.D. in political science in 1940, both from Columbia University.

He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, shortly after the United States entered World War II. Originally trained as an infantryman and then as a tank commander, Hechler was eventually assigned as an Army combat historian in Europe and rose to the rank of colonel.

After the war, Hechler was one of five people assigned to interview Hermann Goering and other leaders of Nazi Germany before they were put on trial for war crimes in Nuremberg. One of Hechler’s last books, “Goering and His Gang,” was a collection of interview transcripts from that time.

Hechler then taught politics at Princeton University for a couple of years before joining Truman’s administration as an adviser on local-level issues during his tours around the country.

His association with Truman began through George Elsey, a fellow war historian who worked at the White House. According to the 1985 interview, Hechler said late in 1949 Truman wanted a study of government subsidies to businesses, and he wanted it done quickly. Elsey suggested Hechler do it, and Hechler put it together in a couple of weeks.

He met Truman for the first time a few days later, at the White House Christmas party. He worked as a consultant for the next few months, then joined the Truman administration full-time in the summer of 1950. He stayed at the White House throughout Truman’s tenure and a short time into the administration of his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

After that, Hechler joined the American Political Science Association and traveled with Democrat Adlai Stevenson during his unsuccessful campaign to unseat Eisenhower in the 1956 presidential election. One of his jobs at the political science group, he said, was to find political science professors for colleges.

But when Marshall College asked for a professor, he took the job himself.

“I’d been [at Marshall] when President Truman went through there, and had prepared the local color on Huntington and other cities in West Virginia,” Hechler said. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to try, even though the salary was about one-third of what I was making with the Political Science Association. But I just liked the idea of accepting a new challenge like that.”

He was a professor at Marshall for only one term — the 1957 spring semester — and ran for Congress the following year. He defeated the sitting Republican congressman, Will Neal, and served nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1959 and 1977.

Hechler attributed his initial victory — despite having been in West Virginia fewer than two years — to his association with Truman and the popularity of his book “The Bridge at Remagen,” his account of a significant Allied victory in Germany in World War II. (Hechler was at the battle, and the book was made into a 1969 film starring George Segal and Robert Vaughn.)

He said in the 1985 interview he was most active in Congress on three issues: “coal mine safety, coal mine health in terms of setting a level above which the dust in coal mines would not be allowed to go, and black lung compensation.”

He played a key role in writing and promoting the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which passed in the wake of the explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine near Farmington, in which 78 miners were killed.

(Talking about the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010, Hechler said, “If the 1969 law had been enforced, those miners would have been saved.”)

Hechler joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the historic 1965 march to Selma, Alabama, in support of the federal Voting Rights Act — the only active member of Congress to participate in the march.

Early in his congressional career, Hechler began driving around in a red Jeep. The vehicle became his trademark, and he was on his sixth Jeep in 2010.

After nine terms in the U.S. House, Hechler gave up his seat to run for governor in 1976, but was steamrolled in the Democratic primary by West Virginia’s young secretary of state, another New York transplant, Jay Rockefeller.

Hechler said he refused to take contributions from anyone and spent $30,000, all his own money, on the campaign, while Rockefeller spent about $3 million.

“I was like a blue-nosed prohibitionist in a wide-open town,” he said in the 1985 interview.

Following that loss, Hechler mounted a write-in campaign for the U.S. House seat he’d given up, but lost to Nick J. Rahall, a former staffer for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Hechler tried again in 1978 and 1990 to win the seat back, but failed both times.

Hechler returned to Marshall to teach for a few years, then ran for secretary of state and was elected in 1984. He held that post for 16 years, until he gave it up to run for a different U.S. House seat in 2000, after Rep. Bob Wise vacated it.

Hechler lost in the Democratic primary; Republican Shelley Moore Capito was eventually elected to the seat. Hechler was 86 years old then, and never again held public office — although he ran for secretary of state in 2004 and U.S. Senate in 2010.

He spent his last years as a political activist. In 2000, he joined campaign finance and environmental activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock, for 530 miles of her walk across the country. He attended numerous protests over the last decade in support of workplace safety and environmental issues.

In 2009, Hechler and 29 other marchers were arrested protesting coal mine sludge ponds near Marsh Fork Elementary School in Boone County. (A magistrate dismissed the charges two months later.)

The national environmental group Earthjustice featured him on advertisements in the Washington, D.C., area in 2011: “My name is Ken. I’m 96 and I’m a fighter. And I’m fighting to save our mountains.”

Unmarried for almost all of his life, Hechler married Carol Kitzmiller, a longtime friend and fellow mountaintop removal protester, on Aug. 12, 2013. Their wedding ceremony was performed by a minister in a parking garage in Winchester, Virginia. He was 99 at the time.

In addition to “The Bridge at Remagen” and “Goering and His Gang,” Hechler’s books included “West Virginia Memories of President Kennedy” (1965), “Working with Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years” (1982) and “Soldier of the Union” (2011), a collection of letters written by his grandfather, George Hechler, and great-uncle, John Hechler, during their time as soldiers in the Civil War.

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