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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ken Hechler September 20, 1914--December 10, 2016

Ken Hechler Campaigning Photo by Charleston Gazette-Mail

Today is a sad day in West Virginia, America, and the world. Ken Hechler has died last night, December 10, 2016, at 102. Ken was the oldest living former member of congress, former speech writer for Harry Truman, professor at Marshall University, former WV Secretary of State, tireless political activist, and loyal Yellow Dog Democrat.

Ken Hechler Photographer Unknown

I suppose I first became aware of Ken Hechler about 1973 when I was connected to the Southern Appalachian Circuit of Antioch College.  At that time, Ken was nearing the end of an eighteen year term in the US Congress from West Virginia.   He would go on to serve sixteen years as the secretary of state of West Virginia and ran his last political race at the age of 96 in 2010.  He was a diligent and fearless voice of liberalism, environmentalism, and rational politics as long as he was physically able and finally married at the age of 99 after a long life as a confirmed bachelor.  

Ken is perhaps the best example of a group of people I refer to as Heroes In Appalachia.  By that term, I mean those people who are not natives of Appalachia but live and work in the area for the good of the region and its people. I differentiate Heroes In Appalachia from Appalachian Heroes who are natives of the region. Ken Hechler was and always will be a hero to hundreds of thousands of West Virginians and Appalachians.  When I was working as a door to door salesman in West Virginia in the late 1980's, I loved to work the heads of isolated hollows both because of the nature of the people and the fact that other salesmen often avoided those kinds of places with poor quality dirt and gravel roads and houses that sometimes seemed too far apart.  I remember dozens of times when I would pull into the yard of an isolated home several miles from a blacktop road and hear a story triggered by my visit about the time Ken Hechler "drove all the way up here in that little red Jeep".  During his political life, Ken always drove red Jeeps which were painted with political slogans and were widely known as his personal signature.  Those Jeeps, several of which he drove to the end of their days, were usually blessed with his favorite political slogan, "Ken Hechler YOUR Servant In Congress".  He campaigned tirelessly even at times he was securely in office.  He spent his periods away from Washington working to strengthen and maintain his relationship with the people of West Virginia.  

Ken Hechler Photo by West Virginia Metro News/WSAZ News Staff

That work was warmly received and repaid with love, respect, and appreciation from the people of West Virginia and Appalachia.  I regret that I cannot remember every story I ever heard on some porch in the head of some hollow in Logan, Boone, Lincoln, Mingo, Wayne, or Wyoming Counties about what Ken Hechler had done personally to make life slightly better for that particular family.  I heard stories about how he arranged to have a military member brought home for the funeral of a parent, sibling, or grandparent.  I heard stories about how he assisted dozens of disabled coal miners win their Black Lung Benefits.  And I heard stories about how he simply accepted a family's invitation to "set down and have supper with us".  

Ken Hechler had been raised in Roslyn, NY, on Long Island in a Republican family.  He was educated at Swarthmore College and Columbia University.  He held a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia.  He was originally hired to teach at Princeton University but chose to change his life dramatically by agreeing to teach at Marshall University.  He was an eastern intellectual who could have avoided Appalachia for all of his life.  Instead he chose to devote his life to Appalachian West Virginia in a way that leaves no doubt that his commitment was total and unyielding for his entire life.  Ken Hechler is a shining example of that group of people who have come to Appalachia of their own free will, devoted their lives to the betterment of the region, and done so without any evidence of condescension or the mistaken belief that they were better than the natives.  Ken Hechler was a remarkable man who life should always be remembered and revered by all Appalachians.  

Ken was among a small group of military personnel chosen to interview and interrogate Nazi leaders after WWII ended.  He was a trusted and productive member of the Truman Administration.  He wrote several highly respected historical books.  Ken Hechler could have chosen to live his life in a very different manner in very different locales.  His choice will always be a blessing to West Virginia and a shining portion of West Virginia history. 

I will never forget June 22, 1992, the day after I married my wife, Candice, at New River Gorge National Park. We spent our wedding night in Charleston and toured the WV Capitol before leaving for Skyline Drive and coastal VA for our honeymoon. I took Candice by Ken's office to show her a photo of Mother Jones which Ken kept hanging for many years in the lobby. It had been moved to the interior hallway and the receptionist allowed us to step into the hall to view it. Ken came down the hall, introduced himself, and invited us into his private office where he spent nearly half an hour talking about many things to two total strangers who did not vote in WV. He told us a great deal about Bill Clinton and how much he believed in him and respected him. He was absolutely correct about Bill Clinton and everything else he told us that day. I will always treasure having spent that time with Ken along with all the brave fights he made for a better West Virginia, Appalachia, and America, all the great books he wrote, and the wonderful, liberal, activist life he led well into his nineties. America could use 538 women and men just like Ken in congress today. Ken Hechler's death has left a large vacancy in Appalachian politics which will be difficult for anyone to fill at the same level at which Ken always functioned.  Godspeed Ken!

The link below is for Ken Hechler's obituary in the Charleston Gazette. 

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