Hechler Dies at 102
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Frances Headley, a longtime Wetzel County Democrat, served on Ken Hechler’s last campaign when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2010.
CHARLESTON — Former congressman and W.Va. Secretary of State Ken Hechler passed away Saturday.
Hechler, 102, a World War II veteran, author, politician and college professor, lived every day of his life to the fullest.
Hechler, a Democrat, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1977 and he was the oldest living person to have ever served in the United States Congress. Hechler was West Virginia Secretary of State from 1985 to 2001. When Hechler was in his 90s, he ran for U.S. Senate.
Frances Headley of the Wetzel County Democratic Executive Committee said her friendship with Hechler began in 1985 during his first term as Secretary of State.
“A group of Wetzel and Tyler County residents had formed a citizens action committee named HOG for ‘Halt Outside Garbage,'” she said. “When I visited the Secretary of State’s office to file paperwork for the nonprofit, he was there and asked me to explain what was going on. We wanted to stop the huge, sudden influx of out of state garbage into our landfill in Wetzel County. He took a personal interest and we struck up a unique friendship that has lasted over three decades.”
Headley was one of Hechler’s most dedicated campaign workers.
“In 1990 in the middle of his Secretarial term Mr. Hechler ran for his old Congressional seat, but was defeated by Nick Rahall in the primary,” she said. “I was helping him with his campaign while having to declare a major at Bethany College. I sought his advice about choosing to study political science. He told me the only reason one should be involved with politics is for public service. ‘There is no other reason.’ He said the greatest of educators cannot teach the lesson that one will have to restructure one’s own personal life many times to accommodate a life of public service, and that personal sacrifice comes with the job. He expanded on his advice to make sure I realized being a public servant in the political arena was not always going to be easy, because ‘stopping bad things’ was a significant part of the journey.”
Hechler’s campaign was in 2010 when he ran for U.S. Senate in the special election to succeed the late Senator Robert Byrd, running in the primary against then Governor Joe Manchin.
“He knew it was a race he could not win, but insisted his candidacy would bring light to the negative impact of mountaintop removal,” Headley said. “He was adamant that not only the people needed protection from greed, but the earth too. He was angered and broken hearted to watch as explosives, draglines and bulldozers were used to devastate the hills of West Virginia, yet he cared deeply about the people working in the mines. He put his name on the ballot because it infuriated him that ‘King Coal’ had won the political interests of many of his colleagues in Congress, and in turn, he saw the situation back home in West Virginia become more and more dire. Mr. Hechler gave me a quote to use during the campaign: ‘There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tougher it gets, the more exciting it gets when you can see victory. I’m still hoping that before I leave this
world I get to see that victory, which I’m sure is going to come.'”
Headley said one of her favorite pieces of political memorabilia is a pocket sized copy of the United States Constitution signed by Hechler.
“Inside it he wrote ‘Keep the faith Frances!,'” she said. “I will treasure it and the memories of knowing such a phenomenal human being the rest of my life.”
During Hechler’s 16 years as Secretary of State, the Democrat can be credited with cracking down on election fraud and for being a principal force behind the mobilization of Secretaries of State and Attorneys General in 33 states to limit campaign spending. He was the architect of the 300-foot law on Election Day, which prohibits campaigning within 300 feet of a polling place, and initiated the Code of Fair Campaign practices.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant issued a statement Monday.
Secretary Tennant had the following to say about Secretary Hechler:
“Ken Hechler was a friend and I am deeply saddened by his passing,” she said. “My thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Carol, and their entire family. His contributions not only to the Secretary of State’s Office, but also to the state of West Virginia will endure for so many years to come. His devotion to the people of this great state and his passion for public service is one I personally strive to duplicate. West Virginia lost a remarkable man.
“I feel blessed to have worked with him. Ken Hechler actually gave me my first job in state government and that was in the Secretary of State’s Office. I was a student at WVU and I worked with the Youth in State Government Program during his administration. That experience helped shaped me into the person I am today and I am forever grateful to Ken for that opportunity. He was a great boss. I learned so much from him and that experience.
“After becoming Secretary of State, I was proud to nominate Ken for the Margaret Chase Smith American Democracy Award through the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). In my letter I cited his lifelong dedication to advocacy for the common good, no matter how unpopular, or even dangerous, his political stances may be. Through his life, Ken was called a maverick politician, a rabble rouser, a great statesman, a troublemaker, a hero but he could never be called a quitter.”
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin issued a statement on Sunday.
“Gayle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Ken Hechler’s family as they mourn the loss of an incredibly caring human being and a dedicated public servant,” Manchin said. “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 who I could always turn to for trusted advice. He was held in the highest level of trust as a public servant who will be missed by all West Virginians.”
Hechler was a speech writer for President Harry S. Truman from 1949 to 1953. He worked on Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign against Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. The man walked with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala., the only congressman to do so. In past election cycles, Hechler made a bid for governor and secretary of state.
Hechler’s book, “The Bridge at Remagen,” was adapted into a popular movie about the capture of the last standing bridge on the Rhine River during World War II. Hechler was serving with the 9th Armored Division when the bridge was captured.