Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 10 September 2010 00:00
This year has marked the passing—-and the continuation—-of two great political careers in the state of West Virginia. One of the gentlemen in question is a native of Roslyn.
In June, Sen. Robert F. Byrd, the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, passed away at age 92. Byrd, if he had lived, probably would have sought re-election in 2012. Incredibly enough, he wouldn’t have been the most senior politician in the Mountaineer State to run for office.
That honor belongs to Ken Hechler, the Roslyn native who this past summer ran, at age 95, for the Democratic nomination for Sen. Byrd’s open U.S. Senate race.
Hechler didn’t win, but he polled a respectable 17 percent, winning 16,000 votes while running on a platform opposing mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia.
“I’m not really running for the Senate, I’m running to enable the people of West Virginia to register at the polls their opposition to this devastating practice [mountaintop removal], which hurts so many people in the valleys when they dump the rocks in the soil and all the things that they’re blasting out of the mountains into people’s front yards,” Hechler said in a July 23 interview with Salon magazine. “Ruining the aquifers so that if they have water wells they run dry and also drying up the streams where people are fishing and using for recreation. And it’s a practice that is so vicious that it ought to be abolished. Every time a poll is taken in West Virginia it’s two to one in favor of abolishing it but there’s never been an opportunity for people to put it on the ballot and so I’m saying every vote for Ken Hechler is a vote tantamount to opposition to mountaintop removal. That’s the only reason I’m in the campaign.”
And so adds another chapter to a political career that has included stints as a U.S. Congressman and Secretary of State of West Virginia.
Hechler, who often returns to Roslyn to give talks at the Bryant Library, was born in the village in 1914. He holds degrees from both Swarthmore College and Columbia University. Prior to World War II, Hechler taught at several universities, including Columbia, Princeton, and Barnard. During the war, Hechler served as a combat historian in Europe. He later parlayed his interviews with both U.S. and German soldiers into a book, The Bridge at Remagen.
After the war, Hechler served as a White House assistant to President Harry S Truman and also as a research director for Senator Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign. He eventually landed a teaching position at Marshall College in Huntington, WV. That is where this native of Long Island would settle and in 1958, Hechler resumed his career in politics, winning a seat in that state’s Fourth Congressional District.
Hechler served in Washington until 1976, when he launched an unsuccessful bid for the governor’s race. However, he wasn’t finished in politics. In 1984, he was elected West Virginia Secretary of State. He was re-elected to that post in 1988, 1992, and 1996. However, Hechler still hoped to return to the nation’s capitol. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in both 1990 and 2000, and also for his old job as Secretary of State in 2004, winning, at age 90, the Democratic primary for that post before losing to the Republican nominee in the general election.
Whether Sen. Byrd influenced Hechler’s ambition or whether both men fed off each other’s energy is unknown. Still, their parallel careers and amazing productivity represents a unique saga in American history.
All the while, Hechler has remained a prolific author and activist. In addition to his book on World War II, Hechler has published his memoirs of the Truman years, a history of the U.S. space program, other histories of World War II, plus River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America (1991), and Super Marine!: The Sgt. Orland D. Jones Story, a book that Hechler published in 2007 at age 93. To demonstrate his opposition to mountaintop removal, Hechler, in 2009, was arrested during a protest at such a site in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. He wasn’t alone that day. The elderly Hechler had company, being joined in the demonstration by the stunning actress, Daryl Hannah.