By Jody Brumage
Ken Hechler, a veteran of World War II, staff assistant to President Harry Truman, member of the United States House of Representatives, and West Virginia Secretary of State died this past Saturday, December 10, 2016. As people across the state reflect on the life of Congressman Hechler, we are reflecting on his role in West Virginia’s congressional delegation and his leadership in over thirty years of public service.
Born in 1914 in New York, Hechler attended Swarthmore College and Columbia University, receiving a PhD from the latter in history and government. During World War II, Hechler served as the combat historian for the European Theater of Operations, chronicling the lib-
Following World War II, Hechler joined the staff of President Harry Truman and later served as research director for Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 campaign. Two years later, Hechler won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving West Virginia’s fourth congressional district. Seated on January 3, 1959, Hechler was a liberal voice in the West Virginia delegation, becoming an outspoken critic of the coal industry and the damages it wrought on the state. In 1969, he became the chief sponsor of the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969. President Nixon signed the legislation into law on December 30, 1969, establishing the Mine Safety and Health Administration, calling for annual inspections of coal mines and imposing penalties for mine owners who failed to meet safety standards. In collaboration with Senator Robert C. Byrd, Hechler’s efforts were strengthened three years after the bill’s passage with the Black Lung Act of 1972, which expanded protections and aid to mine workers who contracted respiratory illnesses from inhaling coal dust in the mines.
Congressman Hechler devoted much of his career in the House of Representatives to environmental causes. These efforts included opposition to strip mining and preservation of West Virginia’s natural resources, including the New River. In 1974, working closely with Congressman Harley O. Staggers, Sr., Congressman Hechler pushed for the inclusion of four West Virginia wilderness areas under the protection of the 1964 Wilderness Act. From these efforts, Dolly Sods, Otter Creek, Cranberry Wilderness, and Laurel Fork were placed under protection between 1974 and 1983.
After an unsuccessful bid for governor of West Virginia in 1976, Congressman Hechler taught at Marshall University, the University of Charleston, and West Virginia University. In 1984, he was elected West Virginia Secretary of State, going on to serve 4 full terms, the longest tenure of any holder of that office. Serving under the Moore, Caperton, and Underwood Administrations, Hechler continued his efforts to curb the devastating environmental impact of strip mining and later mountaintop removal.
The Byrd Center was privileged to conduct an oral history interview with Congressman Hechler in 2012. You can read his interview here. We thank Congressman Hechler for his dedication to the people of West Virginia.