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Film chronicles Hechler's life

Apr. 03, 2008 @ 03:43 PM

Two years ago Barb Winters was traveling through Charleston in summer when her car overheated.

Along the side of the road, she watched the blur of dozens of cars zooming past her trouble.

Then, she spied a red Jeep -- not just any red Jeep, the red Jeep.

"My son Cliff was with me in the car and I said that is Ken Hechler, and he will be back," said Winters, who is the dean of Marshall University libraries. "He made a U-turn and helped us get on the road. He was 91 then. He didn't have to do that and he did. That is Ken Hechler. I think that says something about the way he has conducted his life."

Now 93, Hechler, author, statesman, scholar and social justice activist and his trademark red Jeep have made deep tracks through decades of West Virginia, American and world history, never failing along the way to stop and help out people in need.

The remarkable life of Hechler will be celebrated at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 5, during a premiere viewing of "Ken Hechler: In Pursuit of Justice," a two-hour documentary focusing on the life, career and legacy of the former West Virginia congressman and secretary of state.

Free and open to the public, the viewing takes place in the Memorial Student Center's Don Morris Room on the campus of Marshall University.

The film will also be shown nationwide later this year on PBS.

West Virginia native singer-writer and multi-instrumentalist, Lionel Cartwright, who composed and produced the documentary's soundtrack, will perform during the event.

Created by filmmakers Russ Barbour and Chip Hitchcock, who began work on the project in July 2005, the documentary is a two-part film examining the role of political office throughout 20th century America.

Barbour, whose career with WVPBS since 1979 has included such films, "West Virginians At War," and the documentary on the late, great fiction writer, Breece Pancake, said he had been wanting to do a documentary on Hechler since the 1990s.

"I had started collecting material and doing various interviews," Barbour said.

"In 2005 I talked to a colleague Chip Hitchcock in Morgan about doing a series of interviews. We felt the state really needed to have that archived. About two months later, Ken called up and said he would like for us to do a documentary using his life to inspire people and that is certainly what we tried to do."

Cartwright, who has scored more than 100 television shows and movies, and who did the popular theme for Rachel Ray's "30 Minute Meals," said Hechler's life and spirit makes inspiration came easily.

Cartwright said as a West Virginian it was the ultimate honor to work on a documentary about Hechler, who among other things was the only congressman to march with Martin Luther King in Selma, Ala., and the first congressman sponsoring legislation to limit coal dust and provide strict safety standards in Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

"First and foremost is just the story of his life," Cartwright said by phone from Nashville. "It's just remarkable like three lives in one. There is the history in this lone life that covers such a span of time going back to the FDR administration. It's a great story and you don't have to watch it long to say, 'Wow, this guy just had an amazing life.' What is also amazing is that when you do a documentary on someone who is such a public person they literally have footage of everything."

Amazing life

As a young man, Hechler received a doctorate in political science from Columbia University and taught at Columbia College and Barnard College, but like many it was the war that also shaped his life.

He was drafted into the army infantry in 1942, commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II and, after the European Theater, rose to the rank of major.

Following World War II he was appointed to the five-man team that interrogated captured Nazis such as Hermann Goering, Admiral Doenitz, and Joachim von Ribbentrop.

His war-time experience in Europe that birthed his nonfiction book "The Bridge at Remagen, Ballantine, 1957."

Made into a major motion picture that was premiered at the Keith-Albee, it was the first of four books Hechler would write. The latest "Super Marine," was published in 2007.

He assisted President Roosevelt in the preparation of his 13-volume "Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt," and was a special research assistant for President Truman.

All this before he sought political office himself.

In 1958, while teaching at Marshall University, Hechler ran for and was elected to Congress from West Virginia and was re-elected for 18 years.

He was also elected to four, four-year terms as West Virginia secretary of state.

It was in office, or better yet out among the people he served, that Hechler flourished, his passion shaped by his father Charles and his mother, Catherine Elizabeth (Hauhart) Hechler, both of whom were elected to numerous Republican county offices on Long Island.

"They were Roosevelt progressives that wanted to make society better," Barbour said. "They saw the very rich and the very poor and the needy and he had this sense that he needed to do something as he went through life. When he saw his parents inspiring people it was natural for him to be challenged to do that as well."


To get at that spirit they interviewed Hechler, of course, and a who's who of contemporary history.

More than 50 people were interviewed including Karl Fleming, Newsweek civil rights reporter in the 1960s; Doris "Granny D" Haddock, campaign finance reform activist; Joseph "Chip" Yablonski, labor lawyer/son of slain miners' leader; and former colleagues, including former U.S. Sens. George McGovern and Bob Dole.

"Here is an individual who really, truly it is documented, came in touch with the greatness and horror throughout the century," Barbour continued. "You can't help but find in anybody you interview some measure of that greatness that he passed onto people."

The production also makes use of archival photographs, motion pictures and sound recordings, including rarely viewed news film. The documentary employs excerpts from numerous addresses, including speeches by Presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.

"The interviews alone add up to about 75 hours then you have on top of that all the archival film we collected," Barbour said. "Just hours and hours. I guess about 15 hours or more of archival film and a lot of it just outstanding stuff. I cannot go on enough about the WSAZ film collection at the Morrow Library and the Cultural Center in Charleston where they have WOWK footage and a lot of government films."

Marshall partnership

To immerse themselves into the project, Barbour, who has been at West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 1979, and Hitchcock took a sabbatical, and teamed up with Marshall University as a partner in the project.

Winters said Marshall's partnership role in the project included assisting the filmmakers in accessing materials located in the Ken Hechler collection at the Marshall Libraries. The university also provided an intern to work with the filmmakers during the research and filming phases.

The university will receive all the original field tapes at the end of the project, and intends to distribute copies of the tapes containing interviews with Hechler to other archives, most notably the West Virginia Archives, as well as to the West Virginia Collection located at West Virginia University.

"It was a logical marriage," Winters said. "They got a leave of absence from West Virginia Public Broadcasting to do this and there needed to be an administrative entity. Fortunately this was something we could do."

Winters said it is quite staggering the number of people who came forward to be interviewed and the amazing stories that poured forth from all sides of the political aisle.

"Even if they disagreed with him politically they believed in his honor and integrity," Winters said. "I know he never participated in any character defamation. He just said what he had to say and he really had interesting and atypical ways of getting his message out."

That meant going out to the people, jumping in his Jeep, heading up hollers, heading to the mills and making sure people knew their voices were heard.

Inspirational leader

Barbour said he vividly remembers Hechler stopping by his elementary school in Logan County.

"I remember his warm and intelligent eyes and that we were all proud that he was our congressman," Barbour said. "That started it. I was seeing this guy who really seemed to be living up to what he was saying, and by all accounts at that time, and through much of my life in knowing Ken, that seems to be the case."

Huntington attorney, David Tyson, former state Republican Party chairman, would agree,

He and his father, Richard Tyson, former co-host of WHTN-TV's Comment show and longtime friend of Hechler, were just two of the Huntington residents interviewed for the film.

In 1971 while at Huntington St. Joseph High School, Tyson was a page for Hechler and then spent the next couple summers working for him as well.

Tyson said Hechler was a tireless worker for the people of the state.

"He loved West Virginia his adopted home and he loved the people," Tyson said. "He would work dawn until dusk every day he was in his office. ... He thought it was very important to answer constituent mail and to always remember birthdays and anniversaries and to contact individuals. This really wasn't politics it was just the way he is and his persona."

Even after Hechler stepped out of public office after 16 years as West Virginia's secretary of state, he has not quit serving the public.

Just a few years ago, he walked 530 miles with Doris "Granny D" Haddock on behalf of campaign finance reform.

He has published two more books honoring his comrades of World War II, "Hero of the Rhine," in 2004 and "Super Marine!" in 2007.

He's been outspoken against overweight coal trucks, mountaintop removal and other environmental and social justice issues.

He flew one of his Marshall classes out to the Truman library just for a day to get a better sense of history of the president he knew well.

Still in the process of finalizing the distribution, Barbour said they will be offering the film to the National Education Telecommunications Association, much the way "Ashes to Glory," was distributed nationally on PBS, and while also getting it into schools and libraries as well.

"I don't think we interviewed anyone who lets grass grow under their feet," Barbour said. "They're all go-getters. We interviewed some young people but most of the people we interviewed were in their 60s to their 90s, and these are active people, and it's not just nervous energy. They are out there everyday working to make a difference in everyday lives."



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