ROMNEY, W.Va. — More than 100 friends, relatives and representatives of dignitaries brought verbal gifts of thanks to longtime former West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler at a surprise birthday party held Sunday at the South Branch Inn.
“Thank you,” is all Hechler could say when he realized the gathering was for his 99th birthday.
As one friend said, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen him speechless.”
“My goodness,” Hechler said. “I’m going to invite all of you back to my 100th party. Right now I’m glad to be anywhere.”
And Hechler’s humor set the tone for the entire event.
Hechler told the group he hopes to have enough time left in his life to write at least a couple of more books before he turns 100.
One of his special guests was Helen Holt, the first female secretary of state in West Virginia.
Hechler helped Holt celebrate her 100th birthday Aug. 18.
Holt said when she first met Hechler in 1958 that he scared her to death.
“I was in my office when I heard all this noise, a band and singing. Ken wanted an application to run for the U.S. Congress,” Holt said.
“I signed a lot of certificates. I don’t remember any other. But I remember Ken.”
Hechler remembered and sang part of his theme song.
“Back then there was this song called ‘Sugartime.’ We changed the words a little bit to ‘Hechler in the morning, Hechler in the evening, Hechler at election time,’” he said.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin sent Hechler greetings, saying, “Ken has honorably served our state and nation for many years as a veteran, an aide to President Harry S. Truman, an educator, and a public servant. As a U.S. Congressman, he served West Virginia for 18 years in Washington and truly made a positive difference.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wrote that it was a privilege to commend Hechler for his many accomplishments.
“His contributions to West Virginia are too numerous to count, and I stand amazed by his incredible knowledge and ability,” Tomblin wrote.
Hechler was astounded when he was presented with a lapel pin and honorary membership to the Book and Key Society of Swarthmore (Pa.) College.
“This was one of my aspirations that never occurred until this very moment. I am humbled,” Hechler said.
The Book and Key Club is an honor society established in 1906 at the college.
Another recognition was brought to the party by Delegate Ruth Rowan.
Rowan said to become a Distinguished Mountaineer a person has to be born in West Virginia.
“The senior staff met and they have proclaimed you as a Distinguished Mountaineer,” Rowan said.
Numerous relatives and acquaintances over the years reflected on their individual experiences with Hechler.
A former Hechler employee said that he was an amazing boss. She commented on his honesty and encouragement to his staff to challenge him when they didn’t agree with his ideas.
“He changed our lives forever,” she said.
Bobby Nelson worked with Hechler during his 1958 campaign.
Nelson said, “We covered over 12,000 miles in his old Army Jeep and he wore out three pairs of shoes.”
Mary Jo Brown, liaison for Manchin, remembered Hechler visiting Burke Street School in Martinsburg, where she was principal.
“He kept a bunch of books in his Jeep. Mr. Hechler pulled up a chair and set down and shared his travels across West Virginia to the children,” Brown said.
“They loved him.”
Hechler reflected on his many campaigns, saying he had a gimmick.
“I got a card table and a couple of dozen folding chairs. I went to places like City Hall and the Post Office. I had a banner, Ken Hechler’s open air office hours,” Hechler said.
Hechler said it was a good ploy because inside people wanted to give him their life history before they’d get to the point. Outside they could see the people waiting in line so they got right to the point.
He voiced his opinion about the environment, an issue he continues to feel strongly about.
“God gave this Earth not to destroy but to preserve for future generations. I don’t mind being called a tree-hugger because I am,” Hechler said.
Nelson said Hechler is a people person and would talk to people anywhere and everywhere.
“He always said it was better to jump the gun than not move when the gun goes off,” said Nelson.
“If everyone would live the kind of life this man has lived, think of what this nation would be like.”
Hechler is the oldest living person to have served in the U.S. Congress.
Hechler and longtime acquaintance Carol Kitzmiller were married Aug. 12. The couple reside in Hampshire County.