Ken Hechler

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Ken Hechler
Ken Hechler 2008.jpg
Ken Hechler speaking in 2008
26th Secretary of State of West Virginia
In office
Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr.
Gaston Caperton
Cecil H. Underwood
Preceded by A. James Manchin
Succeeded by Joe Manchin
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from West Virginia's 4th district
In office
January 3, 1959 – January 3, 1977
Preceded by Will E. Neal
Succeeded by Nick Rahall
Personal details
Born (1914-09-20) September 20, 1914 (age 101)
Roslyn, New York
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Carol Denise Hechler
Residence Slanesville, West Virginia[1]
Alma mater Swarthmore College
Columbia University
Occupation Retired
Religion Episcopalian
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1942–1945
Unit 9th Armored Division
Battles/wars World War II

Kenneth William "Ken" Hechler (born September 20, 1914) is an American politician. A member of the Democratic Party, he represented West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1977 and was West Virginia Secretary of State from 1985 to 2001. He is currently the oldest living person to have served in the United States Congress.


Early life and military service[edit]

Hechler was born in Roslyn, New York on September 20, 1914 to Charles H. Hechler and Catherine Hauhart Hechler.[2] He holds a BA from Swarthmore College,[3] and an MA and PhD from Columbia University in history and government. Hechler served on the faculty of Columbia University, Princeton University, and Barnard College in the pre-war years.

Hechler held a series of minor appointed positions in the federal civil service until he was drafted into the United States Army during World War II. After graduation from Armored Force Officer Candidate School, he was assigned as a combat historian in the European Theater of Operations, and following the war was assigned to interview many of the defendants prior to the Nuremberg Trials, including Hermann Göring.

He was also attached to the 9th Armored Division when one of its infantry-tank task forces captured the Ludendorff Bridge spanning the Rhine river at Remagen, Germany. He interviewed several of both the US and German soldiers involved, and in 1957 published the book The Bridge at Remagen which was adapted into a film in 1969.

Entry into politics[edit]

Representative Hechler and other members of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics visit the Marshall Space Flight Center on March 9, 1962 to gather first-hand information of the nation's space exploration program.[4]

He then was a White House assistant to Harry S. Truman from 1949 to 1953 and Research Director for Adlai Stevenson's 1956 campaign. From 1953–1957 he was associate director of the American Political Science Association in Washington, DC. Hechler then was appointed to the faculty at Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia. He ran for United States House of Representatives from West Virginia's Fourth Congressional District, which then included Huntington and many unionized mill towns along the Ohio River north of that industrial city, in 1958. He won a narrow victory by 3,500 votes.

In Congress, he earned a reputation as a liberal Democrat and in 1965, he was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King at Selma, Alabama.[3] He was the principal architect[citation needed] of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which for the first time put a ceiling on the amount of respirable coal dust allowed in coal mines, and stipulated stringent safety regulations. He faced little opposition in Democratic primaries and was reelected eight times.

Election of 1972[edit]

Hechler faced a close race for the first (and as it turned out, only) time in 1972. Following the 1970 Census, West Virginia's declining population cost it a congressional district. The state legislature merged Hechler's district with most of the old 5th District, comprising several coal-mining counties around Bluefield and Beckley. The 5th had been represented by Democrat James Kee of Bluefield since 1965, and members of his family had held the district continuously since 1933. On paper, the new district favored Kee, who retained 65 percent of his former territory. However, Hechler routed him in the Democratic primary by almost 26 points and easily won reelection in November. He was reelected in 1974 after being unopposed in the primary and general election.

Running for Governor[edit]

In 1976, he entered a multi-candidate primary for governor, but lost that statewide race by a large margin. He then attempted a write-in campaign in his old district against the Democratic nominee, Nick Rahall. Rahall was a follower and former staffer for Robert Byrd. He lost to Rahall in a close election, taking 36 percent of the vote and pushing the Republican candidate into third place, and lost again to Rahall in the Democratic primary of 1978. Following these unsuccessful political bids, Hechler resumed his teaching career at Marshall University, the University of Charleston and West Virginia State University.

Later career[edit]

In 1984 he ran for West Virginia Secretary of State and won. He was re-elected in 1988, 1992, and 1996. In 1990, he again ran, in the middle of his Secretarial term, for his old Congressional seat, but was defeated by Rahall in the primary. His term as Secretary of State is most known for his successful prosecution of Johnie Owens, who sold his position as sheriff of Mingo County for $100,000 and was sentenced to fourteen years in federal prison. He also persuaded the West Virginia State Legislature to require that candidates publicly register loans, with specific terms of repayment. There was a growing rift between him and union leaders over his support of tough environmental laws, thought by union leaders to be at the cost of jobs.

As Secretary of State, in 1985 he moved his legal residence to Charleston. Charleston is located in the 2nd District, which was vacated in 2000 by nine-term Democrat Bob Wise, who was running for governor. He lost a three-way Democratic primary bid for that seat. In 2000, at the age of 85, he walked 530 miles in joining Doris Haddock ("Granny D") in her cross country walk on behalf of campaign finance reform, shortly before the passage of the McCain-Feingold Act.

In 2004 he ran yet again for his old post as Secretary of State. This time, he won the Democratic primary by a plurality, but lost the general election to Republican Betty Ireland.

Since the 2004 election[edit]

Since 2004, Hechler has campaigned against mountaintop removal mining. On June 23, 2009, Hechler, then aged 94, participated in a protest near mountaintop removal mining sites in the West Virginia coalfields in the Coal River Valley along with others.[5] He was one of 29 protesters arrested for trespass.

On August 12, 2013, Hechler, at the age of 98, married his long-time companion, Carol Kitzmiller, in Winchester, Virginia. On September 20, 2014, he turned 100. “The secret of longevity is to exercise,” Hechler said. “I always exercised on the tennis court until I had to give that up, but I’ve got a new hip.”[6]

2010 U.S. Senate campaign[edit]

On July 21, 2010, he filed to run in the special election to succeed the late Senator Robert Byrd, running in the primary against Gov. Joe Manchin.[7][8] Hechler indicated that his primary goal in entering the race was to draw attention to the devastating impact of mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.[9] Hechler lost to Manchin, with less than 20% of the vote.[10] He endorsed Jesse Johnson of the Mountain Party for the Senate seat.[11]


  • Ken Hechler, The enemy side of the hill: The 1945 background on the interrogation of German commanders as seen subjectively by Major Kenneth W. Hechler, U.S. Dept. of the Army (1949)
  • Ken Hechler, The Bridge at Remagen, Ballantine, First edition (January 1, 1957)
    • The Bridge at Remagen (Presidio War Classic; World War II), Presidio Press (July 26, 2005), ISBN 978-0-89141-860-3
    • The Bridge at Remagen: The Amazing Story of March 7, 1945 - The Day the Rhine River was Crossed, Pictorial Histories Pub, Rev Sub edition (December 30, 1993), ISBN 978-0-929521-79-4
  • Ken Hechler, Endless Space Frontier: A History of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, 1959-1978 (Aas History Series), Univelt (February 1982), ISBN 978-0-87703-157-4
  • Ken Hechler, Working With Truman, Putnam Adult; First Edition (November 19, 1982), ISBN 978-0-399-12762-5
    • Ken Hechler, Working With Truman: A Personal Memoir of the White House Years (Give 'em Hell Harry Series), University of Missouri Press (March 1996), ISBN 978-0-8262-1067-8
  • Ken Hechler, Holding the line the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion and the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944-January 1945 (SuDoc D 103.43/4:4), Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (1988)
  • Ken Hechler, River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America, Penguin Books (1991)
  • Ken Hechler, Hero of the Rhine: The Karl Timmermann Story, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, (January 1, 2004), ISBN 978-1-57510-110-1
  • Ken Hechler, Super Marine!: The Sgt. Orland D. "Buddy" Jones Story, Pictorial Histories Publishing Company (January 2007), ISBN 978-1-57510-135-4


  1. ^ "WV MetroNews – Ken Hechler turns 100". Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  2. ^ Donna Baxter. "the News-Leader". Retrieved 2013-04-29. 
  3. ^ a b "Alumni Achievements - Ken Hechler '35". Swarthmore College Bullentin. Swarthmore College. October 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-11-28. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  4. ^ Bill von Ofenheim (1962-03-09). "Members of House Committee on Science and Astronautics Visited MSFC". NASA Image eXchange. NASA STI (Scientific and Technical Information) Program. Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  5. ^ "Update on Today's Daring Dragline Protest, Launches 7 Days That Will Shake Mountaintop Removal Operations". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  6. ^ "WV MetroNews – Ken Hechler turns 100". Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Toeplitz, Shira (July 21, 2010). "Politico: Manchin gets veteran Dem challenger". Politico. 
  8. ^ Kris Wise Maramba (July 21, 2010). "Hechler files to run against Manchin for U.S. Senate". Charleston Daily Mail. 
  9. ^ Devereux, Ryan (July 23, 2010). "Meet the world's oldest Senate candidate". Salon. Retrieved July 23, 2010. 
  10. ^ Kercheval, Hoppy (August 29, 2010). "Hoppy's Commentary on the Special Primary". West Virginia Metro News. 
  11. ^ Times, Marietta (September 9, 2010). "Leading Democrat Ken Hechler endorses Jesse Johnson for West Virginia Senate seat". Green Senatorial Campaign Committee. Retrieved September 9, 2010. 

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Will E. Neal
U.S. Representative of West Virginia's 4th Congressional District
Succeeded by
Nick Rahall
Political offices
Preceded by
A. James Manchin
West Virginia Secretary of State
Succeeded by
Joe Manchin III
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Perkins Bass
Oldest Living Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
October 25, 2011 –
Succeeded by