In the space of two days, we lost two well-known heroes from the Greatest Generation, men who represented the adjoining states of Ohio and West Virginia in the U.S. Congress. One, John Glenn, a Marine fighter pilot and United States Senator from the Buckeye State, died on December 8 at the age of 95. The other, Dr. Ken Hechler, an Army colonel, professor, military historian and nine-term congressman who represented West Virginia, the Mountain State, died on December 10 at the age of 102. Both also served together in Congress for two years, with Hechler leaving the House to run for governor in 1976.
Although I’d met John Glenn twice, I did not know him personally, and thus cannot offer any first-hand observations about him. On the other hand, I knew Ken Hechler for nearly fifty years, and though I feel inadequate in writing about his many achievements, I wish to introduce him and his life’s work to others so that he might serve as a model of service and rectitude.
The Honorable Ken Hechler was the oldest living former Member of Congress. He was my friend. This photo of us was taken at his 100th birthday party.
Ken Hechler was born in Roslyn, New York on September 20, 1914, just weeks after the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Born into a Republican family, he attended Swarthmore College in the lush Philadelphia suburbs and while there developed a social conscience that contained a strong element of caring for those in need.
That sense of caring would stay with him until his last breath.
As a young graduate student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, I first met Dr. Hechler in 1967. He was then a congressman, and I was immediately touched by how approachable he was, with an uncanny ability to listen to everyone, a trait I saw him exhibit continuously over the years. And yes, he remembered names.
In a conversation about 10 years ago, he told me about his experience in working in a soup kitchen in the gritty Delaware River town of Chester, Pennsylvania, located only a few miles from tony Swarthmore and environs. The fact that he brought this up in our conversation probably meant that this experience assisting others during the Great Depression was one of those significant markers, where life experiences help construct new paradigms to help us view the world.
After graduating from Swarthmore College, Hechler returned to New York to complete graduate work at Columbia, earning his master’s and doctoral degrees. But a full academic career would have to wait. A year after receiving his doctorate, he was assisting with the work of annotating President Roosevelt’s papers, but the war intervened and Ken was soon inducted into the U.S. Army to contribute to the defeat of the Third Reich.
A young Columbia Ph.D. might not make the best Army commander, to be sure, but Ken’s abilities were quickly recognized and soon he was fulfilling his military duty as an historian of the conflict engulfing Europe.
During the last phases of World War II, he chronicled the struggle to secure the remaining bridge on the Rhine River that allowed American forces to enter the German heartland. Years later, he would write about that experience in a classic book, The Bridge at Remagen, which was made into a movie in 1969.
Ken’s performance as an Army historian provided his ticket in playing a role at Nuremberg, where top Nazis were tried for their crimes against humanity. He served as an interrogator of both Hermann Goering and Admiral Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s successor, who served only a week before the Nazis surrendered.
Last year, while visiting Nuremberg, I examined the exhibits used at the trials, and photographed the thick volumes of bound testimony and audiotapes of the interrogations of these Nazis, which I sent to Dr. Hechler. As I walked around the courtroom and the parade grounds of this famous site, I gained a deeper appreciation of the scope of his work as both a chronicler and witness to the most significant events of the twentieth century.
In many ways, Ken Hechler was an academic at heart, as he returned to Columbia to teach. But he jumped at the opportunity to join the White House staff of President Harry Truman, and it was this part of his career that I conversed with him the most over the years.
One evening about seven years ago, when I was pulling into the garage after a long day at the Ohio Department of Education, my cellphone rang. It was Ken, and he wanted to tell me the story of his work in April, 1951, when the president asked him to complete an urgent research project. (It didn’t matter that I had to cook dinner for my wife, also hungry from a strenuous day as a teacher of preschool deaf children. Every time that I spoke with my hero, everything could wait, for I had everything to learn from his every word.)
He explained that he wanted to talk with me about the president’s request for a report detailing the relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan, the Union commander during the Civil War. President Truman told him that the report was due the next morning. He then raced to the Library of Congress to spend the night in the stacks, reading everything he could, without benefit of a copy machine or a staff assistant to help him with the president’s report.
In his book, Working With Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years, Hechler summarizes the president’s thinking in this fashion:
“When I started this, I wasn’t sure what it was designed to prove…The memorandum was in the president’s hands the next morning. I discovered that the president had put his finger on a striking historical analogy, which he was adept at doing. I documented that McClellan was a brilliant, egotistical field commander who felt his Commander in Chief was a crude, ignorant and uncouth Middle Westerner with no appreciation of military strategy, of which McClellan was a self-acknowledged expert.”
The parallel with MacArthur was uncanny. It was the general who reminded people that he graduated first in his class at West Point, while this seeming impostor masquerading as president had never attended a day of college. MacArthur’s condescension toward his commander was evident, and Hechler’s work helped make the case for examining historical precedent and identifying insubordination.
MacArthur was fired shortly after the submission of Dr. Hechler’s report. My friend had participated in assisting the president by creating an eternal lesson in the sanctity of the Constitution as well as civilian control over the military.
As Ken Hechler finished telling me this story, I was more in awe of him than ever before, reaffirmed in the belief that he was a skilled, dedicated public servant. He also influenced me to read everything I could about Harry Truman, whom I believe is one of our greatest presidents.
By the time I first met Ken Hechler, on the Marshall University campus, he was fifteen years removed from the White House and recognized as a successful congressman legendary for his constituent services, driving around his district and making appearances in a distinctive red Jeep, which became his trademark. In 1969, one of his hallmark achievements was his role as principal author of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which provided more stringent safety inspections for underground mines and compensation for miners afflicted by what we now call “black lung disease.”
During his tenure in the House, he became legendary as a courageous voice for many causes, including civil rights and the environment. The New York Times offers this example:
“Risk, political or physical, speckled Dr. Hechler’s career. He angered many constituents — nearly all of them white — when he joined the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the final phase of the 1965 voting rights march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. He was the only member of Congress in King’s entourage.”
Most notable in his many progressive positions was his total opposition to strip mining, which he thought was an unnecessary destruction of the earth, causing landslides and the acidification of nearby mountain streams. As a West Virginia resident, I was moved by his passion as a friend of the earth and his repeated warnings about the long-term health effects of this degrading practice. Time has proved him right, with increasing reports of poisoned underground wells and elevated levels of cancer among residents of counties where strip mining is most prevalent.
It would take a barrel of ink and reams of paper to more fully document his life’s achievements, but here is brief summary. He left the House in 1976 to run for governor, only to lose to the self-funded multimillionaire John D. Rockefeller IV. In 1985, he again returned to elective office as West Virginia Secretary of State, and served till 2001.
In 2009, at the age of 95, he was arrested along with actress Daryl Hannah and others for protesting coal waste sludge ponds. The very next year, he was featured in an ad, saying “I’m 96 and I’m a fighter. And I’m fighting to save our mountains.”
Ken proved to be a man of many surprises. A lifelong bachelor, he married a long-time friend and fellow environmental activist, Carol Kitzmiller, when he was 99 years old.
Four years ago, I was delighted to receive an invitation to attend his 98th birthday celebration, and again, in 2014, when I traveled to my alma mater, Marshall University, to join about 50 people in celebrating his centenary.
A few weeks ago, his wife Carol invited friends to join him for an early Christmas celebration this past Saturday at his home. He posed for a photo at the end of dinner, around 6:30 pm, then quietly slipped off into eternity sometime after that.
I wished that I could have attended and spoken with him one more time. All who knew him loved him, and we miss him already.
Ken Hechler was a giant among otherwise diminutive politicians. He fought constantly for justice for coal miners as well as minorities, and for environmental protection to ensure clean air and water. He fought companies that wanted to rip, extract, and haul off their black gold, leaving behind despoiled hillsides, fouled streams that can’t support aquatic life, roads that are torn up by overweight trucks, and of course, people with chronic health problems caused by all of this destruction.
There is no one left that can take his place in opposing this rape of the land.
Winston Churchill once said that that we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. Churchill must have been thinking about Ken Hechler when he said these words, for Ken Hechler gave us his best as a public servant for more than seventy years.
We will miss Dr. Ken Hechler, teacher, scholar, statesman, friend of those in need, and a friend of the earth. His kind may never pass this way again.
May he rest in peace.