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Scenes From The Career of Ken Hechler
By Heath Harrison
September 22, 2013


Since he just celebrated his 99th birthday on Sept. 20, this week’s “Remember When” takes a look back at the long career of former Congressman and West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler, who I spoke with on Friday for this piece
Early life

Born in Roslyn, N.Y. on Sept. 20, 1914, Ken Hechler first pursued a career in academia before entering politics.

He graduated from Swarthmore College, then got his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Columbia University, and, in the 1930s, taught at Columbia, Barnard College and Princeton. During this time, Hechler was chosen by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to work as an editor and researcher in organizing his presidential papers. The populist, liberal policies of Roosevelt's New Deal would prove to be a major influence on Hechler's political life.

World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, Hechler was drafted into the army and was assigned as a battlefield correspondent and combat historian in Europe. His interviews with U.S. and German soldiers following the battle for the Ludendorff Bridge would later serve as the basis for his best-selling book, The Bridge at Remagen, which was adapted into 1969 Hollywood film starring George Segal, Ben Gazzara and Robert Vaughn.

Following the war, Hechler was selected by the U.S. government to interview captured Nazi commanders prior to the Nuremburg trials, including Hitler’s top military leader Hermann Goring.

In 1949, Hechler went to work as an advisor and special assistant to President Harry Truman, where he guided the president on grassroots politics and local issues. Hechler would later document his time in the White House in his critically-acclaimed book, "Working with Truman."

He followed up his work in the West Wing with a stint as associate director of the American Political Science Association and he served as research director for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.

Arrival in West Virginia

After leaving D.C., Hechler arrived in West Virginia in 1957 to teach at Marshall College, where his engaging classroom methods quickly made him popular with students. One of his many innovations in teaching was the installation of long distance phone lines into his classroom, along with an amplifier, which allowed students the opportunity to ask questions of newsmakers and leaders from around the country.

He said he was inspired by James Farley, the former Democratic Party chair, who had used a similar set-up to address and court delegates for Roosevelt’s political campaigns.

"If a student asked a question I could not answer, I would say, 'Let’s dial the expert,'” Hechler said.

He would then call up a prominent name for their reply. Hechler said the use of the long-distance conversations earned him national coverage.

“I remember a New York Times story that began, ‘Shades of Alexander Graham Bell,’” he said.

Election to Congress

In 1958, encouraged in great part by his students, Hechler decided to run for Congress West Virginia's Fourth Congressional District. As a Democrat, he narrowly defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Will E. Neal in the general election that fall and began serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his 18 years in Congress, Hechler became known as a champion of social justice causes such as civil rights, the push for greater mine safety and efforts to protect the environment.

On campaigning with Kennedy

Hechler campaigned alongside John F. Kennedy in the lead-up to his historic win of the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary.

He said, initially, he was not impressed with Kennedy, but was won over after watching him on the campaign prior to the West Virginia primary and seeing the candidate's communications skills in action. He said Kennedy connected with voters in the state, especially the youth.

“He sensed their hopes and dreams,” Hechler said.

He recalled, in particular, Kennedy’s visit to Marshall during the campaign.

“He asked me, ‘What should I tell the students?’” Hechler said. “I said, ‘Tell them Marshall will soon be a university,’ and it resonated with the students.”

Hechler said the victory in the state was always important to Kennedy.

“He was always grateful to West Virginia for having chosen him over Humphrey in that famous campaign,” he said.

On civil rights

Hechler was the only sitting member of Congress to march alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma, Alabama in 1965.

He was in Cape Canaveral on a trip as subchair of the House Space Committee. While other members of the delegation went to view the planned space launch, Hechler left for Alabama, when he heard of King’s nonviolent march for voting rights.

Hechler said he had learned of the brutal treatment civil rights supporters had received for their efforts and decided it was more important to stand alongside King in Alabama.

“I had always been very strong supporter of civil rights. I had read about the tear gas, cattle prods and hard times being given to civil rights supporters, from Freedom Riders to people like John Lewis, who was beaten by Gov. George Wallace’s goons.”

Hechler said that his support of civil rights did not sit well with some of his constituents back home, recalling an angry letters, such as one that read, “with all the economic problems we have, you chose to go down there and sleep with those n----rs.”

“There was very little sympathy for my position at the time,” he said.

Mine safety

Following the 1968 Farmington mine disaster in Marion County, in which 78 miners died, Hechler was a leader in securing the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, and is widely credited as the law’s architect.

Hechler personally paid for the cost for many of the Farmington widows to come to Washington to make their case for the act’s passage.

The 1969 act strengthened safety standards and established the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to administer and enforce mine safety standards. The legislation was updated and strengthened with the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

On campaigning

Always stressing that he was "Your servant in Congress," Hechler was extremely popular with the voters in his district, and was re-elected by wide margins throughout his Congressional career. He was known for his colorful and populist campaign style, in which he would travel the state in his signature red Jeep to meet the public face to face.

He even wrote his own campaign songs, first by altering the lyrics of popular songs, and then, in later campaigns, crafting his own compositions.

“I tried to make my commercials resonate with people’s addiction to music,” Hechler said. “I thought music was an important part of politics.”

Hechler said his use of music dated back to days when his superiors had the Pentagon had realized his ability, and asked him to write songs to boost morale.

After Congress

In 1976, Hechler ran for governor in a crowded primary field, but lost the Democratic nomination to Jay Rockefeller. No longer on the ballot, as his party had nominated Nick Rahall for his Congressional spot, Hechler attempted a write-in campaign to retain his seat, but narrowly lost in a three-way race.

Following his defeat, Hechler returned to teaching, serving on the faculty of Marshall University, the University of Charleston and West Virginia State College.

Return to politics

In 1984, he ran for statewide office again, this time winning the race for West Virginia Secretary of State. Hechler used the office to push for liberal reforms. He cracked down on corruption in Mingo County, and his investigation of election law violations by Johnie Owens led to a 14-year federal prison sentence for the county boss.

In 2000, Hechler met Doris Haddock, better known as "Granny D," who, at the age of 90, walked across the U.S. to raise awareness for the cause of campaign finance reform. After reading about Haddock's activism, Hechler joined her on her walk.

That same year, Hechler gave up his position as secretary of state to run again for the U.S. House at the age of 85. He lost the Democratic nomination to Charleston lawyer and delegate Jim Humphreys.

Recent years

After leaving office, Hechler returned to teaching at Marshall University, as part of the Yeager Scholars program, where one of his courses focused on the legacy of the Truman administration.

He has remained as engaged as ever in activist causes, particularly with his opposition to mountaintop removal mining.

Hechler has long called for the abolishment of the practice, and has worked on the issue for years with local and national activists, in particular, his close friend, the late Larry Gibson, with whom he often traveled to college campuses to speak to students on the issue.

In 2010, Hechler announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate to fill the seat of Sen. Robert C. Byrd. He mounted a vigorous campaign at the age of 96, with his primary goal to raise awareness of mountaintop removal. He lost the primary to then-Gov. Joe Manchin.

Now the oldest living person to have served in the U.S. Congress, Hechler currently resides in Hampshire County, where he works as an activist, columnist and a regular guest on radio. He's a prolific author and says his biggest motivation these days is his writing.

“I’m a compulsive writer,” he said “I turn out at least two books a year.”

Hechler said his latest work, “How To Be a Great Teacher,” draws from his experiences as a professor and, among its advice, provides guidance on how to use humor in the classroom.

This week's video, courtesy of the Morrow Library at Marshall University (via the WV Culture Center Archives), features a number of clips from Hechler's career:
- First, we see a 1984 campaign spot, featuring the red Jeep and a Hechler-penned jingle from his successful run for secretary of state.
- Next, is a 1974 spot he filmed in the congressional studio in Washington, illustrating Hechler's creative use of television, in which he speaks with a staff member dressed as Uncle Sam about the cost of using the studio.
- This is followed by an earlier spot, date unknown, featuring Hechler as Santa, filmed in the studio.
- Then, we see a lengthy campaign spot from his 1976 write-in campaign for Congress, followed by pieces featuring citizen testimonials.
- and, finally, a brief bit of silent footage from WCHS of Hechler shaking hands with President John F. Kennedy at the White House.

Remember When: Scenes From The Career of Ken Hechler

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