For all of Ken Hechler’s accomplishments — congressman, secretary of state, World War II veteran, professor, author, activist for civil rights, coal miners and the environment — two words were repeatedly used to describe him at a memorial service Monday in the Culture Center: public servant.
“Ken Hechler was not in it for his ego, he was not in it for personal gain,” said Circuit Judge John Yoder, who came to know Hechler while serving in the state Senate in the 1990s. “He was in politics as a public servant and to make things better for West Virginia and the nation.”
Yoder, who joined Hechler and wife Carol for dinner at their Romney home shortly before Hechler died at age 102 on Dec. 10, was one of multiple dignitaries and friends who remembered Hechler during a more than 90-minute service in the Great Hall.
Judy Deegans, who served as his administrative assistant for his last seven years in Congress, described Hechler as a complicated individual.
“He was intensely private, intensely driven and intensely committed to doing the right thing,” she said. “He stood up for what was right, and people were very important to him.”
Many spoke of Hechler as a mentor, including current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who, as a West Virginia University student in the summer of 1990, helped run the “Week in State Government” program Hechler created and funded to bring high school students from across the state to spend a week in Charleston.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, concurred, saying, “Ken inspired so many West Virginians to public service.”
Despite all of his accomplishments, Hechler was a modest man, Tomblin said, recalling his 16-year tenure as secretary of state.
“You would find him not in the secretary’s office, but at a desk in the hallway, surrounded by stacks of paper,” Tomblin said.
Allen Johnson, director of Christians for the Mountains, recalled how Hechler, in his latter years, mentored Larry Gibson, a retired custodian with a fifth-grade education, to become a leading activist against mountaintop removal mining.
In turn, Johnson said, Gibson inspired Hechler “to get out on the streets as a citizen activist,” be it fighting against environmental destruction or walking 530 miles with Doris “Granny D” Haddock on behalf of campaign finance reform.
When he gave up driving, Hechler gifted his trademark red Jeep to Gibson, Johnson said.
While Hechler was, as former state senator Charlotte Pritt noted, an unabashed New Deal Democrat, many speakers cited his ability to put politics aside for the sake of friendship.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recalled that Hechler always enjoyed debating politics with him.
“We didn’t always agree, but we always agreed to be fair,” Manchin said. “I think that’s missing so much in the political arena today.”
Similarly, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., recalled how Hechler and her father, Arch A. Moore Jr., served in Congress together for 14 years.
“Despite being on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they shared a great friendship for many years,” Capito said.
Capito said Hechler confided in her, after marrying longtime companion Carol Kitzmiller at age 98, “My friend Arch Moore would be so proud of me; I finally married a damn Republican.”
Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams recalled working with Congressman Hechler while at the Veterans’ Administration, noting, “He wanted straight answers and all the details.”
Williams added, “Ken Hechler was a servant in the truest sense of the word. When he saw a need, he went after it head-on, with a tenacity and determination to see it through.”
Williams said he could imagine Hechler is still at work, trying to convince God to change some of the ways he runs Heaven.
Playing on that theme, Yoder commented, “I hope he will pester God to send us more statesmen like him.”