Mountain State Dynasty: John Kee of West Virginia
By Ray Hill
For forty years, one family dominated the politics of West Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District. John Kee, a former state senator, was elected to the House of Representatives in the Democratic landslide of 1932, beating the Republican incumbent, Hugh Ike Shott. As his secretary (administrative assistant or chief of staff), Kee appointed his wife, Elizabeth. When Kee died in 1951, Elizabeth ran for and won her husband’s seat in Congress in a special election and kept it until 1964 when she retired. Mrs. Kee appointed her son James as her own administrative assistant. When Jim Kee succeeded his mother in 1964, and apparently not one to buck a well-established family tradition, he appointed his daughter Kirsten as his chief of staff.
John Kee liked to explain he was of English descent and his forebearers had been locksmiths, adding the spelling of his name came from an old English spelling of “Key.”
During his youth, John Kee had been in the oil business in Mexico but saw his properties confiscated by the government following a revolution. Kee went home to West Virginia as he was a fourth-generation West Virginian. Once back home, John Kee assumed the safer profession of corporation lawyer, an occupation that suited a man who possessed “an orderly and logical mind.” Kee preferred the oftentimes complicated process of preparing a legal case to the actual trial inside the courtroom.
Of having his land, oil and business confiscated, Kee laughed. “That was the end of my career as an oilman. I stopped buying oil lands then and there.”
Until the Great Depression, West Virginia had been more of a Republican state, perhaps due to the fact it remains the only state in the nation to have broken off from an existing state. During the Civil War, West Virginia separated from Virginia, which may explain its early Republican leanings, having left the Democratic Party, which was the political preference of the Southern states. Democrats could win an occasional race here and there, but most of the congressmen from the state were Republicans. Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal changed all that and West Virginia became a starkly dyed-in-the-wool Democratic state in most elections. Between 1958 and 2014, no Republican was ever elected to the United States Senate from West Virginia.
John Kee was an attorney by trade and his only real political experience had been serving as a member of the West Virginia State Senate for a single term. The 1932 election swept out every Republican from major elective office in the Mountain State, save for GOP U.S. Senator Dr. Henry D. Hatfield, who was not up for reelection until 1934.
At the time, John Kee was described as an able speaker “of the old Southern style,” “fluent, eloquent” and reminiscent of the famous orator Daniel Webster. Still, few compared to the public speaking abilities of the most powerful Democrat in West Virginia, junior U.S. Senator Matthew Mansfield Neely. One contemporary writer opined while the quality of the speaking prowess of the Mountain State’s congressional delegation had risen appreciably with the 1932 election, he still believed “Neely could, at once and in a bunch” take every West Virginia congressman “and talk them into a trance” in no time flat.
John Kee was the sort of congressman who could and did speak to different groups equally eloquently about Robert E. Lee or Abraham Lincoln and leave his audiences entranced. Although he was a mighty good speaker, John Kee was known as soft-spoken and scholarly.
When John Kee arrived on Capitol Hill in 1933 to take the oath of office on March 4, 1933, he was already fifty-eight years old. Both John Kee and his opponent in the 1932 election were residents of Bluefield. Hugh Ike Shott and John Kee had contested once before in a bid for Congress in 1928, which had been as good a year for Republicans as 1932 had been bad. Shott had won decisively, if not overwhelmingly.
Once elected, John Kee made West Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District his own. He was never again challenged inside the Democratic primary and even in the most Republican election year, his vote barely dropped below 57% of the votes cast. With a safe seat in Congress and the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, John Kee began climbing the seniority ladder.
Before the passage of the ‘Lame Duck Amendment,” new members of Congress were sworn in on March 4, rather than January 3. At the end of February 1933, Congressman-elect John Kee and his wife Elizabeth traveled to Washington, D.C., where they stayed at the Dodge Hotel, a popular hostelry for congressmen.
Upon arriving in Washington, D.C., Kee did not name his wife as his chief of staff initially. That designation went to John R. Murphy, a resident of Williamson, Mingo County, West Virginia. An attorney, Murphy had chaired the Democratic Executive Committee in Mingo County. The race between then-congressman Hugh Ike Shott and John Kee had been relatively close and hard-fought; Kee attributed much of his success in the general election to Murphy’s efforts.
When two newly elected congressmen from West Virginia wanted a seat on the House Judiciary Committee, Robert L. Ramsey and John Kee good-naturedly flipped a coin to determine which of them would be endorsed for the post by the Mountain State’s Congressional delegation. Kee won.
As to his own ability to pick a winner, Congressman John Kee started out on the wrong foot. A contest for the speakership to succeed John Nance Garner of Texas, who had been elected as FDR’s vice president, developed between Henry T. Rainey of Illinois and John McDuffie of Alabama. John Kee and Joe L. Smith voted for McDuffie while Rainey won. Both hoped the new speaker was liberal-minded enough to be forgiving of those who had not supported him.
Kee impressed observers as the House organized as he never left his seat from noon until it recessed at 4:10 p.m. Reporters noted the freshman congressman remained alert and attentive throughout that entire period of time. As committee assignments were doled out by the Democratic leadership, John Kee did not end up on the House Judiciary Committee, but rather the Foreign Affairs Committee. Even though two members of West Virginia’s House delegation had more seniority, only Kee received an assignment to a major committee. While it had nothing to do with West Virginia or West Virginians directly, it remained John Kee’s committee assignment throughout his tenure in Congress. Eventually, Kee became the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
John Kee had met his wife Elizabeth when he had represented her first husband in their divorce proceeding. Elizabeth had moved to Bluefield in 1925 and a year later married John Kee. When Kee had been elected to Congress, naturally Elizabeth came with him. Elizabeth Kee was the executive secretary to Congressman Kee throughout his time in the House of Representatives.
Congressman John Kee rose to the pinnacle of serving as the chair of one of the most prominent committees of the House of Representatives following the sudden death of veteran congressman Sol Bloom of New York. The New Yorker had been stricken during a committee meeting. There could not have possibly been a greater contrast in the personalities of Sol Bloom and John Kee. Bloom had made a considerable fortune as a literal showman and retained the flamboyancy expected of a successful showman. John Kee was seventy-four years old when he assumed the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and his health was already fragile.
One of the first pronouncements made by the new chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee was Kee’s statement in an exclusive interview with the North American Newspaper Alliance of his view of the worsening situation in China where Communists were overrunning the Nationalist government. Kee’s predecessor Sol Bloom had been strongly in favor of giving more aid to the Nationalist government, a notion John Kee opposed.
“The situation in China is not the most pressing for the moment,” Kee told reporters. “There are more urgent foreign problems before us. The Chinese situation can wait awhile.”
“It’s in a high state of flux,” Kee explained, “and it would be very wise to wait and see just what does happen there. That is the position of President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and I am in complete accord with it.”
Kee noted his friend Walter Judd, a congressman from Minnesota and former missionary to China, “considers China the most important issue in the world.” “I don’t agree with him,” John Kee said flatly. “I can’t see it that way at all. I am frank to admit that I don’t know what our policy should be toward China. But I am sure that it should not be one of pouring more millions and arms into the chaotic and shattered Nationalist Government.”
Judge Kee pointed to the success of both the Marshall Plan and the aid given to Turkey and Greece as having been highly successful, both from the perspective of their value economically and militarily.
As noted in an editorial published by the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time of John Kee’s death, the job of a good committee chairman “is to mediate, to conciliate, and to forge constructive action out of divergent points of view.” The Courier-Journal hailed “Judge” Kee’s congressional service as chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee where he presided in a “gentle, unobtrusive manner that often gets the best results.” The editorial noted Kee “was never widely known to the public.” but also readily acknowledged the congressman’s “objective was not personal fame, but a sound record of achievement.”
During the last year of his life, the seventy-six-year-old lawmaker was seriously ailing. For the better part of a decade, John Kee had suffered from heart trouble. Congressman Kee spent several months as a patient at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, James Richards of South Carolina, had begged Kee to slow down. Richards recalled other members had urged Kee to go away and rest for some time, a suggestion the West Virginian ignored. According to Richards, John Kee had replied, “I’d die if I didn’t have something to do. If I must go, I must go in harness.”
John Kee was presiding over a closed session of the Foreign Affairs Committee when he turned to Congressman Richards and said, “Jim, will you take the chair a few minutes?” Kee rose from his chair but only managed a few steps before he collapsed. Colleagues rushed to his side and helped him to a room where he was placed on a sofa. Kee died on that same sofa. The congressional physician, Dr. George Calvert, hurried to Kee’s side, but the congressman quietly slipped away. Calvert pronounced John Kee’s time of death as 11:40 a.m. and noted Kee had departed life “without suffering any pain.”
The usual tributes following the death of any public official came pouring in; Secretary of State Dean Acheson praised Kee’s knowledge of the world situation, as well as the role of the United States in global affairs. Yet perhaps the most touching tribute paid to John Kee came from Congressman Charles Eaton, a New Jersey Republican and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Eaton wept as he spoke of his own “tremendous sense of loss” following Kee’s passing. “Dear John . . . may he find it good over there,” Eaton sobbed.
John Kee’s body was taken back to the rolling hills of Bluefield. Following a simple funeral service, which lasted thirty-one minutes, the late congressman was buried beneath the sod of his home city. The last tribute offered to John Kee was a full church, with an equal number of people standing outside Christ Episcopal Church.
Can anyone imagine in today’s hyper-partisan world, someone in Congress weeping over the passing of a colleague in the other party? Perhaps too much has changed over time.
© 2023 Ray Hill