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West Virginia’s conscience Ken Hechler dies at 102

By DANIEL TYSON

The Register-Herald

Ken Hechler, congressman, educator and the avuncular conscience of West Virginia who campaigned for office across the state in his trademark red jeep, died Saturday at age 102.

In this August 2010 photo, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ken Heckler show off his "Ken Do" jeep in Charleston, W.Va.  Statesman and author Hechler has died at age 102 after a seven-decade career in public service. (AP file photo by Tom Hindman)
In this August 2010 photo, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Ken Heckler show off his “Ken Do” jeep in Charleston, W.Va. Statesman and author Hechler has died at age 102 after a seven-decade career in public service.
(AP file photo by Tom Hindman)

On Sunday, praise for the man who fought with mixed results in the rough and tumble arena of West Virginia politics poured in. Hechler served nine terms in Congress representing the southern coalfields then 16 years as West Virginia’s secretary of state. He lost a bid for governor, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress after leaving Washington.

“Ken Hechler was a statesman in the truest sense. He dedicated his life to public service and to his fellow West Virginians,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Sunday of the New York native.

“West Virginia has lost an elder statesman,” Tim Armstead, the Republican House speaker, said of Hechler, a lifelong Democrat.

“It is truly a sad day in West Virginia, but we are better off because of the work and legacy of Ken Hechler,” said Rep. Evan Jenkins.

Hechler may have appreciated being called a statesman, perhaps even considering the word a platitude. After all, the tone of statesman suggests a sedate person, but that is not how Hechler saw himself. Well into his 90s, he wrote, “I used to be an agitator, then an activist. Now I am a hellraiser.”

And raise hell he did. On the national scene, he railed against unsafe mining conditions, fought for landmark black lung legislation, and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in support of the Voting Rights Act.

“The greatest heroes are you the coal miners… You’ve proclaimed, ‘No longer are we going to live and work and die as animals,'” he told miners.

But the coalfields of West Virginia seemed an unlikely place for Hechler. He arrived in Huntington to teach government at then-Marshall College in 1957, having already lectured at Columbia and Princeton. He edited President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s papers and penned speeches for President Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign. It was also in 1957 that his acclaimed tome “The Bridge at Remagen,” a book about the U.S. Army crossing the Rhine River, was first published.

In the 4th Congressional District, a coal-rich, cash-poor section of the state, Hechler found his people. “The state was liberal then. FDR was still a god to many people,” Charles Peters, who was active in state politics at the time, told The Washington Post. “There was no EPA to threaten jobs, no Rush Limbaugh to appeal to voters’ worst instincts. Besides, folks liked Ken. They were proud of his book and admired his tireless campaigning.”

During Hechler’s first days in Congress, he stressed mine safety and workers’ rights, giving speeches and railing against coal’s special interest. However, the 1968 Farmington underground explosion, which killed 78 miners, caused an epiphany. “Nothing in my life ever moved me as deeply,” he would later say.

From then on, he became a staunch advocate for miner safety and benefits. He was the lead sponsor of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, defeating stiff opposition to its passage in 1969. The landmark legislation included bumping willfully violating safety rules to a federal offense, placed a ceiling on the amount of respirable coal dust permissible in a mine and compelled compensation for workers disabled by black lung disease.

He was an early supporter of voting rights for all. Hechler was the only member of Congress in King’s entourage to march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. Despite a lack of support for the act back in the coalfields, Hechler knew he had to march. Five decades later, he said in an interview that marching “was one of the proudest things I did in my checkered life.”

In 1976, Hechler did not run for re-election; instead ,he sought to win the Democratic Party’s nominee for governor. He lost to Jay Rockefeller, another New Yorker. In 1984, Hechler campaigned for secretary of state. The cornerstone of his election bid was halting the election abuse in places like Mingo County, where, he said, “vote fraud is as old as the memory of man.”

After winning, he ignited voting fraud investigations in a number of southern West Virginia communities. That investigation had a “domino effect” as a state special prosecutor and the U.S. attorney’s office became involved, The Washington Post reported.

During his first term as secretary of state, a number of people were successfully prosecuted for their involvement in criminal activities, including a plethora of county officials and a drug-dealing family that worked from a trailer adjacent to the courthouse, The Post reported.

Heckler continued to win the secretary of state office. On Sunday, current Secretary of State Natalie Tennant tweeted that West Virginia is “much richer for his work & dedication.” Incoming Secretary of State Mac Warner said in a statement Hechler “leaves a unique and honorable legacy of military and public service to America and to West Virginia.”

The lanky man with a perpetual smile wasn’t above political theater into his advanced years. During his race for the 2000 governorship, Hechler claimed he was kicked by a politician in Logan County during a march. Metro News reported that Hechler “showed up in the lower rotunda of the state Capitol at Wise’s first news conference after the election. Wise had appointed the politician to a position in his administration. Hechler’s protest sign read ‘Kick me and get a job with Bob Wise.'”

After 2000, Hechler ran unsuccessfully a few times for Congress, taught at Marshall University and remained an environmental hellraiser.

By 2009, Hechler was active in the environmental movement. He was among the marchers protesting coal mine sludge ponds near Marsh Fork Elementary School. “My name is Ken. I’m 96 and I’m a fighter. And I’m fighting to save our mountains,” he told a cheering crowd at the time.

The Register-Herald reported 32 people were arrested by state police, including Hechler, actress Daryl Hannah and NASA climate scientist James Hansen. An estimated 800 protesters and coal miners showed up at Marsh Fork’s football field. “While protesters took turns speaking, coal miners booed and shouted harsh words in opposition,” the paper reported.

Coal miners told Hechler to turn up his hearing aid to hear their protest, according to the paper.

In 2010, Hechler made his final bid for office. Largely symbolic, he ran against then-Gov. Joe Manchin in a special election to fill the vacant seat left by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

“I may be 97 years old, but I still have a lot of fight left in me,” he said with his trademark bravado.

On Sunday, Manchin reflected on his years of knowing Hechler. “Ken was a man of his word — a fierce advocate for West Virginians who was always willing to help any person in need. Ken was a dear friend whom I could always turn to for trusted advice…”

Survivors include wife Carol Kitzmiller Hechler of Hampshire County and a stepson, Joshua Kitzmiller, of Romney. As of Sunday evening, service information was unavailable.

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