Episcopal fetes a favorite son

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In between a trip to Iraq, an appearance on Meet The Press and a campaign swing through New Hampshire, 1954 Episcopal High School graduate John McCain (R-AZ) made time to return to Alexandria Sunday.

These days the storied Vietnam War hero is a United States Senator and a contender for president. But back in the 1950s he was a young cut-up who spent six years in Alexandria at two of the citys private all-boys schools, first at Saint Stephens on W. Braddock Road and then at Episcopal off Quaker Lane.

The most formative years of my life were at Episcopal High School, McCain told a small gathering of alumni at the Belle Haven home of Caulley and Alex Deringer. I did not excel academically, but I enjoyed it immensely.

McCain said hed returned from Annapolis the day before, where his son played in the Army-Navy game, and that he was very worried because his son had no demerits at the Naval Academy. “Thats no son of my mine!” he chuckled. “I certainly did not have the most number of demerits at Episcopal or Annapolis, but I was close.

At Episcopal, students called McCain the Punk, a moniker he relished. From his senior yearbook entry, McCain is pictured in a trench coat, collar up, cigarette dangling from his lips. His classmates wrote: It was three fateful years ago that the Punk first crossed the threshold of the high school. His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. John is remarkable for the amount of gray hair he has; this may come from his cramming for Annapolis or from his nocturnal perambulations.  

From a school bio, approved by his Senate office, just about everything McCain did at Episcopal he did aggressively and competitively, from playing J.V. football under Episcopals legendary coach William B. Ravenel, to setting a school wrestling record for fastest pin.

Mr. Ravenel was the foremost inspiration of my life, recalled McCain, a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down in North Vietnam in 1967 and spent five years as a prisoner of war. When I got out of prison he was the first person I wanted to see, but sadly he passed away two years before I could get home.

Punks years
At Episcopal, McCain was also an editor of the schools newspaper and yearbook, and involved in the Drama Club, its Missionary Society and Blackford Literary Society. Young McCain was also a waiter, serving the hungry boys platters while they flipped butter pats onto the ceiling, as journalist and alum Ken Ringle once wrote in The Post. 

The unofficial but definitive bio of the Punks Episcopal years was written by Robert Timberg, who writes in John McCain: An American Odyssey (Free Press, 2007) that it was at St. Stephen’s he began to display a defiant, unruly streak and that by Episcopal those qualities emerged with a vengeance.

Classmates describe McCain as rambunctious, combative and raffish, wearing blue jeans with his coat and tie and shoes held together by tape. He prided himself as a tough guy, seemingly ready to fight at the drop of a hat, one classmate is quoted. McCain ran with a clique of other tough guys, slipping out of Alexandria for nocturnal jaunts, often ending up at a burlesque house on 9th Street, Timberg writes.

Back then, Ringle recalls, the schools identity was found in its proud but threadbare gentility of the Reconstruction South. Tuition was low, living conditions spartan, staff was unaccredited and students slept in sagging pipe-frame beds, he writes.

I guess I would have bathed more often if there were females at Episcopal, McCain said Sunday. Episcopal, St. Stephens and Bishop Ireton all went co-ed in the fall of 1991, ending a century-old tradition of all-boys boarding schools in Alexandria.

You always have to go back to the people you know and love the best, McCain finished. I will now answer any questions, comments or insults.

The Episcopal alums roared their approval. Its easy to rally around a guy like this, said Craig Stewart of Alexandria, a 1970 grad who worked at Episcopal for 10 years as associate director of development and now heads the American Wartime Museum in Manassas. You realize that despite the wisecracks, his honor and his character are core values of his life.

The quasi fundraising event for McCains 2008 presidential campaign was also co-hosted by Chris Giblin 86, Rob Whittle 69, Edward Wilson 85, Charlie Nulsen 75, Wells Goddin 75 and Dave Clarke 70. 

Aides then whisked McCain out, to catch a plane to New Hampshire, site of the first primary in 2000. America’s political wiseacre, one of its most honorable men  and Episcopals favorite son had left the building.

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