The Magazine

A Hero's Life

Remembering John McCain's teacher.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By KEN RINGLE
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Much has been written about John McCain's presidential campaign, about his conservative ideology (or insufficient supply thereof), about his age, his military service, and his remarkable life story. Most of what's been written, however, proceeds from the assumption that McCain, for all his maverick tendencies, is at heart a politician like any other, prey to the same ambitions, vanities, temptations, and weaknesses endemic to all presidential hopefuls.

That's not the case. He's a very different animal, and not just because of his Naval warrior forebears, his indomitable 96-year-old mother, or his experiences as a POW in Vietnam--though all those obviously influenced him profoundly. A major reason he's different is a remarkable teacher we both shared in school, an incalculable shaper of mind and character named William Bee
Ravenel III.

McCain has spoken often of Ravenel, and keeps a photograph of him hanging on the wall of his Senate office. In Faith of My Fathers he says the teacher's "influence over my life .  .  . was more important and more benevolent than that of any other person save members of my family." Last month, during the "biography tour" of his campaign, he returned to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, the once all-male boarding school we both attended in the 1950s. He used most of his speech there to praise Ravenel as "one of the best men I have ever known," who "enriched my life at EHS beyond measure."

It was not simply Ravenel's academic influence that was so profound, McCain told his audience: "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."

Any cynic tempted to dismiss this as campaign boilerplate should think again. In 1973, less than a year after his release from prison in Hanoi, a withdrawn McCain stood quietly in a corner at a party on Capitol Hill and told me he had returned from Vietnam desperate to see Ravenel: "He was the only person I felt I could talk to about my imprisonment," he said. "I wanted to tell him I finally understood there in Hanoi all the things he'd been trying to tell me about life. I wanted to apologize for being so stupid and to thank him for trying to reach me. But I discovered he had died"--in 1968, at the age of only 53--"and that was the hardest thing I've had to face since I got back."

Who was Bill Ravenel, and how did he so shape a possible future president?

To answer that question, it's necessary to summon up the ghost of Episcopal High School in the 1950s: a then-bare-bones, near-military boarding school where boys, many from wealthy families in the South, were sent to be taken down a peg from the country club indulgences at home and toughened into manhood with academic rigor, compulsory team sports, and cold fried eggs for breakfast. It was a bizarre kind of boot camp of the mind and soul. We slept in curtained alcoves on sagging pipe-frame bunks in aging dormitories light years from the preppy privileges of popular myth. Blackford Hall, where John McCain lived during his junior year, had been a Union hospital during the Civil War and appeared little changed since. The roaches there marched almost nightly, as numerous and aggressive as the Army of Northern Virginia.

With all that, the teachers--known as masters--were a decidedly mixed lot. One creaky and much vaunted history teacher had never even been to college. He joined the faculty immediately upon graduating from EHS in 1902 and droned away the next 53 years of his life while carefully positioning his classroom pointer in a timeless indentation in the toe of his shoe. But Episcopal did whip most of its charges into shape. Each year it sent graduates off to the most competitive colleges--including Yale, Princeton, Williams, and its major outlet, the University of Virginia.

One of the main reasons it did was Bill Ravenel. As head of the English department, he set such rigorous standards for grammar and writing that they rule his former students to this day. He was a stocky, muscular man who carried, with his rugged good looks, a sense of coiled, but self-possessed, authority. He was one of the Charleston Ravenels of South Carolina, and was deeply and sentimentally attached to his hometown. After spring vacations there with his family he would invariably return with a wisp of Spanish moss which he would -poignantly (and always futilely) attempt to transplant in a front-yard tree.