Former congressman, secretary of state Ken Hechler dies at 102

After serving the state of West Virginia for the better part of a century, Ken Hechler has died at the age of 102. (File photo)

After serving the state of West Virginia for the better part of a century, Ken Hechler has died at the age of 102.

Hechler was born a mere two months after the beginning of World War One. And he lived a life which spanned more than a century and included some of the most pivotal moments of the last 100 years.

His parents named him Kenneth William Hechler, but everyone knew him as Ken.

Born in Roslyn, New York he was a college professor, historian, warrior, politician and activist.

Hechler worked as an academic before World War Two, and also with the government when he was drafted in 1942 by the U.S.

Army. Originally slated to drive a tank, he was switched to record the histories of battles. During his service in that capacity, he was attached to the 9th Armored Division. When it captured the Ludendorff Bridge spanning the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, Hechler interviewed soldiers on both sides of the conflict. He turned that pivotal moment of war into the 1957 book "The Bridge at Remagen." A dozen years later, it was adapted into a major Hollywood film.

Following the war, Hechler continued chronicling history. His focus was Europe and his duties included talking with many Nazi defendants who would eventually go to trial in Nuremberg. Among the enemy officers was the creator of the Gestapo and commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring..

Following the war he re-entered public service, serving for four years as a White House assistant to President Harry Truman.

After working on national campaigns and political associations, Hechler was hired to teach at Marshall College. That only lasted a single term because in 1958 he ran for congress in West Virginia's Fourth District. He won, by less than 4,000 votes.

Hechler was a proud liberal democrat and made fighting for equality and social issues a priority. During his time in congress, he was the only member to march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior during his famous demonstration in Selma, Alabama.

Hechler also battled for coal mine safety and was a key developer of the 1969 act which enacted protections for miners.

Hechler kept his seat in Washington even when West Virginia's dwindling population forced a reduction in the state's delegation.

After nine terms, he finally left in 1976 for an ill-fated run for governor. Hechler lost the primary, and then lost a write-in campaign for his old congressional seat.

Following another congressional defeat two years later, Hechler returned to education, as a professor at Marshall, the University of Charleston and West Virginia State.

But the itch for public office was too great ignore. In 1984, he campaigned in his little red Jeep for West Virginia Secretary of State. With a catchy campaign song, he won and was re-elected three times.

In the years that followed his successful bid for secretary of state, Hechler failed in several attempts to return to Washington.

Then, when he was nearly 90-years-old, he was turned away for another term as secretary of state.

However, even in defeat Hechler remained busy.

In 2000 he walked more than 500 miles with activist Granny D to promote campaign finance reform. And he was a vocal opponent of mountain removal mining, arrested in 2004 at 94-years-old for trespassing during a protest.

Four years later, Hechler married his long-time companion Carol Kitzmiller. But Hechler wasn't finished with politics. In 2010, he entered the special primary election for Senator Robert C. Byrd's vacated seat, losing to Joe Manchin.

Upon celebrating his 100th birthday in 2014, Hechler said the secret to a long life was exercise. He was an avid tennis player for decades.

Hechler leaves behind a legacy of activism, education, respect for history and a long record of public service. In his life, he worked and interacted with Truman, King, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, General George Patton, John F. Kennedy and other giants of the 20th century.

At the time of his death, Hechler was the oldest living former member of congress.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin released the following statement on Hechler’s death.

Ken Hechler was a statesman in the truest sense. He dedicated his life to public service and to his fellow West Virginians. He loved our state and our people dearly. A true West Virginia treasure, Ken's legacy of service will live on for generations to come. Joanne and I join his many friends in sending our thoughts and prayers to his wife, Carol, and all who loved him.
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