Before he encountered the prison camps of Hanoi, John McCains honor and duty were put to the test by an influential English teacher and coach, whose legacy and spirit still cling to the classrooms and playing fields of Episcopal High School and inspire a would be leader of the free world.
William B. Ravenel was head of the English Department and the junior varsity football coach in the early 1950s when McCain matriculated at Episcopal.
Over 50 years later, he is lauded and remembered as the kind of teacher every child in America deserves at a town hall meeting at Episcopal attended by the GOP presidential nominee, students, faculty, and alumni.
Ravenel came to Episcopal with a rich background of experiences. He attended Davidson College where he was a stellar athlete. Proving that he was just as much a scholar as a jock he received his masters in English from Duke. He served in Patton’s tank corps during the Third Army’s advance across Europe, and survived hard encounters with Hitler’s panzer divisions. The only teacher at Episcopal who served in the military at the time, Ravenel was a Lt. Colonel in the Army Reserve.
Ravenels experiences in the military had a special resonance with the young McCain, who was the product of a distinguished military lineage. There was something about Ravenel that allowed the rambunctious and macho McCain to open up and share his insecurities about following in his fathers footsteps.
I discussed all manner of subjects with him, from sports to the stories of Somerset Maugham, from his combat experiences to my future,” McCain said Tuesday during a visit to Episcopal. “He was one of the few people at school to whom I confided that I was bound for the Academy and a Navy career, and to whom I confided my reservations about my destiny.
Like the character John Keating portrayed by Robin Williams in the classic Dead Poets Society, Ravenels flair brought literary characters to life and made every lesson seem like an adventure. Macbeth and Hamlet in his care were as compelling to boys as they were to the most learned scholar,” McCain added.
The most endearing quality of Ravenel was his commitment to Episcopes honor code, not just in the classroom but in the school of life. McCain tells the story of a boy on their football team who had committed a minor infraction and was nearly kicked off, had it not been for Avenels grace and forgiveness.
McCain graduated in 1954, but took Ravenels life lessons with him. Returning home from Vietnam, McCain said that Ravenel was the only person outside his family he wanted to talk to. Sadly, Ravenel had died two years earlier from a heart attack at the age of 53.
Because he helped teach me to be a man, and to believe in the possibility that we are not captive to the worst parts of our nature, I will always believe that there is a Mr. Ravenel somewhere for every child who needs him, McCain said.