Ken Hechler: A Hero for Our Time
by Janet Fout
"No figure ever gave me more hope than you did ...
When they finally strike a medal for guts and integrity, decency and
inspirational leadership, the first one should be yours, hands down."
the late Ward Sinclair, Washington correspondent of The Louisville Times
(referring to Ken Hechler).
(Italics are excerpts by Dan LeRoy for Graffiti where
Ken was named Eer of the Year for 2002.)
Ken Hechler talks with Texas populist Jim Hightower at the November 2002
"Just Gimme Some Truth" conference organized by MAPS (Marshall Action
for Peaceful Solutions). Related article : Hey!
The Truth IS Out There!
The year was 1987 and I was just sticking my toe in the vast
waters of environmental activism, hoping to spare Greenbottom Swamp from the
"lets build a dam here" mentality of the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, aided and abetted by the West Virginia Department of Natural
Resources, who at that time had only one thing in mind for the wetlands more
habitat for waterfowl.
Greenbottom Swamp, the third largest wetlands in West
Virginia and a haven for many breeding and migratory birds, is also the location
of the General Albert G. Jenkins pre-Civil War home and one of the most
significant native American archaeological digs in the state.
Though I hadnt a clue about the waters into which I was
wading, something inside me said that in order to weigh in on this issue,
Huntington Audubon would need support from many interested individuals and
groups (a tried and true organizing technique I now know that works).
Dr. Hechler, a local expert on General Jenkins and our
Secretary of State at that time, was the first person I called. For starters, I
couldnt believe how accessible he was! His secretary put me right though, and
we spent a great deal of time talking about the possibilities at Greenbottom. He
was full of ideas and interested in being involved. Little did I know that this
was the beginning of a relationship of shared activism that has endured for
nearly two decades.
Thirty years earlier, Ken Hechler had already begun his
political career as a West Virginia Congressman. "He was already in his
mid-40s by the time he ran his first campaign, for Congress, in 1957. And by
then, hed already accomplished more than most people manage in an entire
"Hed earned his Ph.D. in government and history,
risen to the rank of major in the Army during World War II, written his first
book (which was later turned into a major motion picture), and served two of the
countrys most famous presidents. Along the way, hed managed to interview
legendary figures like Albert Einstein (for his college newspaper) and Nazi
commander Hermann Goering, get dressed down by Gen. George Patton, and court the
daughter of a chief executive (Harry S. Trumans daughter, Bess). Besides
that, he learned to play a mean game of tennis, a skill he still demonstrates on
By the age of 40, Hechler had already lived a remarkable life
with so much more to come. Although I was a poor student of history and
apolitical at best as a young person, the name Ken Hechler was very familiar to
me. And no wonder.
"He took on the coal companies and the Boyle leadership
of the UMW over black lung legislation, and won. He was the first major
political figure in West Virginia - or anywhere - to propose an absolute ban on
strip mining (emphasis mine). These things take political - and physical -
courage," wrote conservative commentator Michael Barone in 1974. And
William Safire noted in The New York Times that "Hechler risked not
only his political life but his actual life in his battle; he gave em hell
and beat em. Hundreds of miners now owe their lives to his fearless campaign,
and conservatives like me take their hats off to a liberal with the courage of
" There were other profiles in courage during his
congressional career. He was the lone member of Congress to march with Martin
Luther King to Selma in 1965, chartering his own plane to make the trek."
Since facing off with me in a high school auditorium packed
with angry duck hunters in the late 1980s, weve shared some other battles.
Ken has been the single most vocal public servant decrying the coal industrys
outrageous practice of decapitating mountains and destroying streams.
Hes been chided, kicked and shoved by angry strip miners
in Marmet, WV, walked several hundred miles across the country with "Granny
D," Doris Haddock, to call attention to a form of legalized bribery in this
country masked as campaign contributions from big special interests, and most
recently weighed in (pun intended) on the ravages to lives, roads and bridges
caused by overloaded coal trucks in southern West Virginia. He has always stood
firmly on the side of the people supporting them with dignity and courage.
Thanks, Ken. Your life is an inspiration.