Editor’s note: Former West Virginia Congressman and Secretary of State Ken Hechler, who marks his 99th birthday on Friday, this week writes about how he first became connected with West Virginia. Readers can send questions to him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SLANESVILLE – I was born in Nassau County, Long Island, about 35 miles from New York City.
After graduation from Swarthmore College in 1935, I enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University. I held minor appointed positions in the federal civil service and then was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After graduation from Officer Candidate School, I was assigned as a combat historian in the European Theater of Operations.
After the war, I interviewed Hermann Göring and other defendants before the Nuremberg Trials. I served as a White House assistant to Harry S. Truman starting in 1949.
In 1953, I began working in Washington, D.C., as associate director of the American Political Science Association, where I was responsible for supervising each annual class of the winners of the Congressional Intern Program.
Only six students won these yearlong fellowships. I was responsible for teaching them the fundamentals of how Congress works, followed by assigning them to work for three months in the offices of members of the House of Representatives, followed by three months in Senate offices.
I was trained to be a teacher and actually did not like being an administrator so I applied to a dozen universities for a teaching fellowship.
The University of Nebraska offered me a teaching fellowship and I excitedly informed my department chairman, who snorted: “Why would you want to go to a God-forsaken state like Nebraska? We can offer you a job teaching in the Columbia Extension, which specializes in teaching students in evening classes while they hold daytime jobs.”
That’s what I started doing until a vacancy opened on the Columbia faculty. I had also started a very popular recruiting service, to which nationwide universities would turn and ask me to recommend good teachers.
One day a request came to me from Marshall College in Huntington, W.Va., and I unblushingly recommended myself.
Although they informed me that I was “overqualified,” I persuaded Marshall to try me out, which they did in 1957. I became the most popular teacher on the campus, largely through a Depression-era idea I borrowed from a national politician named James A. Farley.
Farley had written a book entitled “Behind the Ballots” in which the native New Yorker explained how he’d masterminded Franklin D. Roosevelt’s choice as the Democratic nominee for president in 1932. Roosevelt then was New York’s governor.
In Chicago, where the party’s convention was held, Farley rented a suite of rooms at the same big hotel where the delegates were staying.
He asked the telephone company to install a phone with an amplifier so he could assemble delegates from several states, place a long-distance call to Albany and have FDR answer questions and smooth relations. He was able to win over a big majority of the delegates that way – and they stuck with FDR when the roll-call voting started.
I immediately concluded, “What a great gimmick for my classroom!”
At Marshall, I installed a long-distance line and made advance arrangements to get U.S. Senators, Supreme Court justices and anybody prominent in the news to be available to talk with my students. If one of my students asked me a question about something I couldn’t answer, I’d say: “Let’s just dial the expert.”
My class quickly became the most popular on the campus, generating realms of good publicity in the Associated Press and The New York Times.
I had been telling my students it was their obligation and responsibility to become active on the political scene – to support candidates they believed in and also to run for office themselves. They, of course, asked: “What’s your excuse? Why don’t you practice what you preach?”
When I first ran for Congress in 1958, I was attacked as a “carpetbagger from Yankee New York.”
My fellow Democrats spurned me as someone who hadn’t paid his dues. But thanks to heavy student support, I actually won the race. That was the start of 18-years of service in the House.
After the election, one of my friends wrote me: “You hardly had time to unpack your carpetbag!”