By Alexa Epitropoulos and Missy Schrott
Though numerous political, military and civic leaders graduated from Alexandria’s Episcopal High School, there’s one alum who looms a little larger than the rest: Sen. John McCain.
John Sidney McCain III, military hero, three-decade-long senator from Arizona and the2008 Republican presidential nominee, graduated from Episcopal High School – where he played football and was on the wrestling team – in 1954.
“I think his classmates remember him as someone with a great sense of humor, a teenage mischievousness where he would not always keep things between the lines in meeting the hopes of all authority figures,” Episcopal Head of School Charley Stillwell said. “I think he had a little bit of a rebel streak that lived itself out in his maverick approach.”
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1958, McCain served in the Navy for more than 20 years and was captured, imprisoned and tortured after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967. He was held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five-and-a-half years before his release in March 1973.
He retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in 1981 and launched his political career in 1982 with a run for the U.S. House of Representatives. He was elected as Arizona senator in 1987 and served in the role until his death. He ran for president in 2000, eventually losing to President George W. Bush, and received the Republican nomination for president in 2008 before losing in the general election to President Barack Obama. McCain died at age 81 on Aug. 25 after being diagnosed with glioblastoma in 2017.
McCain, throughout his military and political career, carried lessons he learned at Episcopal.
William B. Ravenel, his English teacher and football coach at Episcopal, was a mentor and profound influence on McCain as a young man. Ravenel had also been a decorated tank driver during World War II. Stillwell heard about Ravenel’s influence when he went to visit McCain at his office two years ago.
“When Sen. McCain was in Hanoi and was being tortured in the early months of imprisonment, he actually did what he had not ever wanted to do, which was sign a piece of paper being critical of the war effort, as they tortured POWs to sign these statements to say they didn’t believe in the war. He was heartbroken that he had done this dishonorable thing,” Stillwell said. “They continued the torture and they wanted to film him doing these things and he told me that what sustained him in that torture and kept him from doing something like that again in his five-and-ahalf years of imprisonment was the picture in his mind of Mr. Ravenel and not wanting to disappoint Mr. Ravenel when he was there.”
When McCain was released in 1973, Ravenel was one of the first people he wanted to see other than his family. Tragically, though, Ravenel died in 1968, shortly after McCain was captured and long before he returned to the U.S. When Stillwell visited McCain, the senator still kept a photo of Ravenel in his office, along with photos of family.
“For our kids here to understand that here’s a man who has been trying to chase important causes and support all kinds of people over his career in the Senate and, in part, he’s doing that because of a relationship he built with this incredibly important teacher and because of the values Episcopal represents and instilled in him … all of a sudden, Sen. McCain’s importance takes a whole new level,” Stillwell said.
Stillwell said, though McCain embodied the values of Episcopal, he also was a good role model for students because he wasn’t perfect, and sought to correct his mistakes.
“I think that the thing I also so appreciate about Sen. McCain and why I think he’s a great source of inspiration for teenagers is he was not perfect. He made mistakes, he had moments where he didn’t live up to his principles and yet, he was often one of the first people to admit those mistakes,” Stillwell said. “So to then try to learn from those mistakes and to be better at pursuing his principles moving forward, he cared about deeply.”
Different aspects of McCain’s career have inspired generations of Episcopal students who followed in his footsteps on that campus.
“The first time I ever heard of the name John McCain, there was a posting … in the hall where they had common notices. … I can’t remember whether it was the day of his release or the day he was captured. The time was during the Vietnam War, obviously, and it sort of brought home the fact that I’m sitting here as a freshman or a sophomore in high school and here’s somebody who was at that school not too long before I was there who was or is a person in a foreign country in a war,” David Clarke, who graduated from Episcopal in 1970, said. “It made me appreciate my circumstance the first time I heard his name.”
Clarke later had the opportunity to meet McCain, both at a reunion and during his presidential campaign.
“I thought he, first of all, had a great sense of humor and he sold me, even though it was
an easy sell, that I wanted him to be president of the United States,” Clarke said. “I’m disappointed that he wasn’t and I’m disappointed that he has been treated by the current president the way he has. … He had his imperfections, and he wasn’t perfect, but I believed what he said and I believe he was a straight shooter and I was proud to have at least the common denominator of a high school with him.”
John Hooff, who graduated in 1967, said McCain’s service in Vietnam made students at the time realize what was going on in the world.
“The fact that he, amongst some others, were in Vietnam brought that whole world into a reality of focus that, as a young person, you really probably wouldn’t get if you weren’t familiar with and knew some people that were over there,” Hooff said.
Hooff said McCain’s service and legacy also reflected well on the students that came after him.
“I think with him, in particular, Episcopal has an honors system and honor and integrity are a really key aspect of just the life experience we have at Episcopal. I think McCain is a perfect example of a person reflecting that one of the only things you have that nobody can take away from you is your integrity,” Hooff said. “And if you think about him going through what he went through when he was captured, it’s pretty poignant. From an experience at Episcopal, to see somebody live a life like that, it’s very meaningful, touching, something that you really identify with.”
McCain also inspired younger generations. Lucy Whittle Goldstein, who graduated from Episcopal in 1997 and is now a teacher at the school, said she was aware of his legacy throughout her school career.
“I certainly knew that he was a graduate of the school, and, in the fall of my senior year, so the fall of 1996, he came and spoke to the school and it was a very interesting, exciting moment for all of us to have such an illustrious figure be part of our school community,” Whittle Goldstein said.
Whittle Goldstein said teachers have actively been teaching students about McCain’s legacy, by showing pieces of a recent HBO documentary about his life, “For
Whom the Bell Tolls,” and by discussing how McCain embodied the school’s mission
“We’ve been talking a lot with leaders about how they can really live up to the example that Sen. McCain showed for all of us. And we’re hoping that his example will be that much more meaningful because they know that he once walked these same halls and went to the same dining hall and lived in the same dorms that some of our students have,” Whittle Goldstein said. “I just find it really inspiring to know that a part of his history and formation is the same as mine.”
McCain is also remembered from his time living in Alexandria. John McCaslin, former Washington Times “Inside the Beltway” columnist and now editor of the Rappahannock News, would sometimes get scoops from him. McCain, outfitted in a baseball cap, would often sit on the brick wall near the Safeway in Old Town and read the newspaper on pleasant Sundays and McCaslin would sometimes sit next to him.
“He fit into the neighborhood and he was well-known when he was there. He was traveling all over then. He was at the height of being a senator,” McCaslin said.
McCaslin lived at 313 Wilkes St. and McCain lived at 413 Wilkes St. and, due to their nearly identical names, would often get their mail mixed up by the post office.
“[We were neighbors] back at the time of the Keating Five investigation, so whenever I took mail to his house, I would always make sure I’d leave with something. I held it hostage until I got what I needed,” McCaslin joked.
He would also see him around Capitol Hill, whether it was in the halls of Congress or sitting next to him at a barber shop.
“I think that reflects what a special person he was,” McCaslin said. “He was tough. He was, at the same time, humorous and he will be missed – no doubt about it.”
McCain lay in state at the Arizona Capitol on what would have been his 82nd birthday on Wednesday and had a funeral service in Arizona on Thursday. He will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda on Friday before having a funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral. A private funeral will take place Sunday afternoon at the Naval Academy Chapel, followed by a private burial at the academy cemetery.