[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendices | List of Subjects Discussed]
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the Hechler oral history interview.
In August, 2001, Mr. Hechler added several notes and corrections to this oral history. These changes are noted in square brackets throughout the transcript.
In September, 2005, Mr. Hechler requested we add an appendix B to this oral history interview.
Opened December, 1986
Oral History Interview with
November 29, 1985
Niel M. Johnson
JOHNSON: You are presently Secretary of State in West Virginia, isn't that correct?
HECHLER: That's right, since January 14, 1985.
JOHNSON: We're going to back up from that date. I'll back up and ask you for some genealogical information. Would you give us your full name, the place you were born, the date you were born and the names of your parents?
HECHLER: I am Ken Hechler, born September 20, 1914 at Roslyn, Long Island, New York -- that's about fourteen miles from Oyster Bay, where Teddy Roosevelt was born and brought up. My parents are both Missourians. My father was born at Dalton, in Chariton County, not
too far from Columbia, where he attended the University of Missouri. My mother was born in Ballwin, near Kirkwood, outside of the city of St. Louis. They both moved to Roslyn, Long Island in the early 1900s to supervise a 600-acre estate where my father was superintendent for Clarence H. Mackay, the father-in-law of Irving Berlin.
JOHNSON: What were the names of your parents?
HECHLER: Charles H. and Catherine Hauhart Hechler. They were both very interested in education. My mother attended a small college in Warrenton, Missouri, now out of business -- Central Wesleyan College. My father graduated from the University of Missouri after which he taught animal husbandry at the University of Missouri. That is one reason he was called to Long Island by Clarence H. Mackay, because Mr. Mackay was interested in getting someone to supervise, to superintend, his 600-acre estate where they had a number of head of guernsey cattle. He came there in 1907, and I was born in 1914, the third and youngest son.
I must say that my father and mother having been
born in Missouri, however, didn't get me my job with Harry Truman; that was just coincidental.
JOHNSON: I think there is mention in Who's Who that you had a grandfather who enlisted in the Union Army in West Virginia and fought in the battle of Antietam.
HECHLER: Yes, my grandfather George Hechler was born in Germany, not too far from Heidelberg, a little town of Schweigern, and he came over to this country in 1854. He settled in Marietta, Ohio, and enlisted in the 36th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which was then part of Virginia. He fought in a number of engagements and was wounded at Antietam. My great uncle, John Hechler, fought in the same regiment and was captured at Chickamauga and died in Andersonville prison in Georgia. After the Civil War my grandfather, George Hechler, moved west to Missouri and settled in Dalton in Chariton County where he operated a large farm. And that's where my father was born in 1882.
JOHNSON: So he was a Civil War veteran, who maybe got homestead rights, or probably got cheap land at least.
I guess it wasn't open for homesteading in that part of Missouri at that time.
HECHLER: No, that wasn't a homestead. It was an opportunity to purchase land, good farming land, good bottom land, and he was a very successful farmer. Of course, he carried on also his interest in education. He was head of the county board of education, as my father was in Long Island -- president of the board of education. Both my father and my mother drilled me in the necessity for a good education.
JOHNSON: Your mother was German in background as well?
HECHLER: Yes, her ancestors were German, although she and my father were both born in this country, in Missouri.
JOHNSON: I think you've already indicated that this influence passed down from previous generations, at least in terms of emphasis on education.
HECHLER: Very much so. Not in terms of politics, however. My mother and father were both staunch Republicans. My father was a Republican officeholder, a township councilman in one of the large townships on Long
Island. My mother was a Republican committeewoman and also was vice president of the Nassau County Women's Republican Federation on Long Island.
JOHNSON: Could you tell us something about the period of your growing up, of your childhood years, your years in school? Where did you attend school as a child?
HECHLER: I was a graduate of Roslyn High School, the local high school, where I finished second in a class of 30. In the salutatory address I based my speech on journalism as a career. I was very interested in becoming a journalist at that stage of life. I then went on to Swarthmore College, right outside of Philadelphia. I had very great difficulty in measuring up to the high academic standards of Swarthmore. It wasn't until about my junior or senior year that I began to see the light and learn how to study and learn how to write.
JOHNSON: In other words, a small town high school was not necessarily the best preparation for Swarthmore?
HECHLER: Well, it was good preparation, but Swarthmore had an extremely high and exacting standard. It was
a college where I learned a great deal about exhibiting the necessary courage to take risks and also sympathy for minorities and exploited people, which was cultivated a great deal more when I was working with President Truman.
JOHNSON: Did you get experience in journalism in your high school courses?
HECHLER: Yes, I did, a good deal. In high school I was the correspondent for the local newspaper, particularly covering sports. At Swarthmore College I was on the student newspaper, as well as being the head of the press board with a staff of about 20 students who assisted in covering all college news for the Philadelphia and New York papers, and for other newspapers around the country.
JOHNSON: Sort of a public relations effort I suppose then too.
HECHLER: Public relations as well as straight news. Also it earned me about $2,000 in my senior year, because the system that was operating at the college enabled the chairman of the press board, who had worked his
way up for three years, to collect all the checks that came in from the newspapers. I had a number of other rackets at college that I supervised, such as a cleaning and pressing business, and I had the concession for The New York Times which sold close to 200 subscriptions in a college of 500.
JOHNSON: Where is Swarthmore located?
HECHLER: 11.2 miles from Philadelphia.
JOHNSON: Denominational, isn't it?
HECHLER: It primarily has the influence of the Society of Friends, although I am not a member of the Society of Friends myself. It had that predominating influence.
JOHNSON: What made you decide to go to Swarthmore?
HECHLER: I wanted to get reasonably far away from home, at the same time not too far away. I really didn't know enough about the advantages of Swarthmore. I since have found out that it had a tremendous influence on my career in terms of making me learn how to study and having the inspiration also to follow ideals that I've always treasured.
JOHNSON: Maybe it was a stroke of fate as much as choice. Were there people in your hometown, a counselor in your high school, for instance, who had anything to do with you choosing a Quaker college?
HECHLER: No, I'd have to admit, it was pretty much a choice that came by chance. But I was very fortunate to go there, because where else can you find a college where the professors take you out for dinner, and spend an evening with you, helping you and inspiring you? The professors at Swarthmore were not as much devoted to research as they were to teaching and helping the students. It was a tremendous inspiration to study there where the standards were so exacting and the ideals were so high, and the atmosphere was so conducive to learning and intellectual development.
JOHNSON: Were there any particular professors that stand out as having an exceptional influence?
HECHLER: Robert C. Brooks, in political science, was the person who believed in cultivating diamonds in the rough and he felt that I was a diamond in the rough, so he spent a good deal of time polishing. I was
pretty much of a C or C- student until I began enrolling in his classes. He would take me out to his home, or his farm, and would give me the kind of advice and inspiration which I found was necessary for intellectual development. He gave me a lot of encouragement.
JOHNSON: What years were you there?
HECHLER: 1931 to 1935. I graduated in 1935. Although I started out as a C student, I finally ended up with the highest average in political science, and this was largely because of Brooks' influence. I started as a major in economics, and when I changed to political science that incurred a lot of opposition from my parents who couldn't understand. They said that political science was just a "talkie" subject, and they felt that economics had more value for a person's business career.
JOHNSON: Well, especially I suppose in the depths of the Depression because you started at the end of Hoover's administration, and then the first two or three years of Roosevelt's.
HECHLER: That's right. They were very shocked that I became a strong supporter of the New Deal when Roosevelt took office in 1933. I was one of the leaders on the campus to mobilize support for the Democratic Party, which kind of shocked my Republican mother and father.
JOHNSON: They were living where at the time?
HECHLER: On Long Island.
JOHNSON: They apparently were not affected as much as perhaps some other people were by the crash and the Depression that followed in that they did help pay your expenses, no doubt.
HECHLER: Well, I did pretty well work my way through college, with the kinds of commissions I could get by selling the Times, by being on the press board, and by my cleaning and pressing business, as well as waiting on tables. The Depression did affect them quite seriously because Clarence Mackay, the owner of the estate, lost very heavily in the stock market crash. Along about 1932 he moved into what had been our house, and we moved into what had been the tennis professional's
house. Everybody sort of engaged in a game of musical chairs. My father's salary was cut about 2/3 at that time. He was pretty seriously hurt by the Depression, although he had many other outside activities, including the vice-presidency of the Roslyn National Bank and Trust Company, and he was also very active in real estate.
JOHNSON: He was not unemployed in the ordinary sense?
HECHLER: No. He had also had the advantage of starting a new incorporated village in which he served as the trustee and treasurer. The incorporated village was set up largely to save taxes for Clarence H. Mackay. Nevertheless, he did suffer a great deal in terms of principal employment, but he had a number of other activities which helped tide us over during the Depression years.
JOHNSON: Did we get the date or the year when your parents moved to Long Island?
HECHLER: My father moved there in 1907, and my mother moved shortly thereafter.
JOHNSON: At Swarthmore, I guess the perception would be that that was a pacifist college.
HECHLER: That's right. The influence of pacifism was very strong at Swarthmore, and it helped me to develop that philosophy.
JOHNSON: Of course, there was not only a Depression but the way world affairs were developing toward war. Was there a high political consciousness on campus, not only about the economy, but about world affairs as well?
HECHLER: Yes, we had very many speakers that came in from the outside. Albert Einstein visited the campus. There was a number of leading isolationist senators like Gerald Nye of North Dakota, who as you know was on the kick of attributing the entrance of America into World War I to munitions makers. T here was a very strong pacifist feeling on the campus. There was also a very strong anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi feeling.
One of our students, for example, Joseph Seligman of Louisville, enlisted in the anti-Franco forces in the
Spanish Civil War. A lot of the students recognized what was going on during the Spanish civil war as a kind of a testing ground for fascism and nazism versus freedom. Even though there was pacifism on the campus, the feeling against the rise of Hitler and Mussolini was even stronger in those early 1930s, when they came to power.
JOHNSON: Could you characterize the student opinion as isolationist, or at least as a modified version of isolationism?
HECHLER: I think so. At that time it certainly would tend toward a combination of pacifism and isolationism, and yet with a realization of the threat of Hitler and Muss