The late Senator John McCain often spoke and wrote of the enormous impact his English teacher, William Bee Ravenel III, had on his life and character. A World War II veteran and long-time Episcopal High School (EHS) faculty member, Mr. Ravenel was the teacher who reinforced in young McCain the standards of honorable behavior that sustained him during his lengthy imprisonment in Vietnam. In a 2008 visit to Episcopal High School’s campus, Senator McCain (EHS Class of 1954) told students that, “He [Mr. Ravenel] 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.” McCain credited Mr. Ravenel with inspiring his courage and heroism under the torture and temptations of his Vietnamese captors.
Senator McCain’s leadership journey was hardly predictable and far from certain to succeed, by the Senator’s own admission. “Remember I’m the guy who stood 5th from the bottom of his class in the Naval Academy!” he once recounted in a 2017 CNN interview. The young man whom Mr. Ravenel had taken under his wing was somewhat of a hellraiser before he passed through several life changing crucibles as a naval aviator, culminating in his imprisonment for over five years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. However, Lt. Cmdr. McCain returned home a changed man, who came to live the values of character-driven leadership: truth, honor, decency, respect, humility, charity, and compassion. Mr. Ravenel’s influence on him had been so great that Mr. Ravenel was the one person that John McCain most sought to visit upon his return to the United States from Vietnam. For the rest of his days, McCain lived out the commitment to do the right thing, in the right way, for the right reasons.
Mr. Ravenel passed away suddenly in 1968 while still a faculty member at EHS. However, his influence upon Senator McCain’s life spanned across the subsequent decades of McCain’s public service. Embarking on his naval career and then to service in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, McCain went on to change lives himself as a character-driven leader and to mentor many other young leaders, just as Mr. Ravenel had once mentored him.
Senator McCain counseled many junior Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle along with military officers and diplomats who learned to appreciate his security policy leadership and dread his occasional temper flares. Kelly Ayotte, a junior Republican Senator from New Hampshire, became one of the McCain acolytes. When she lost her bid for re-election, McCain advised her, “Whatever you go on to do, do the right thing.” Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota, recounts a conversation with Senator McCain when he quoted a passage from his book, Faith of My Fathers: “Nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself, something that encompasses you but is not defined by your existence alone.”
Today, both Episcopal High School and Arizona State University’s McCain Institute carry on the leadership legacies of Mr. Ravenel and Senator McCain. In 2018, to pay tribute to the remarkable faculty-student relationship between the two men, Episcopal High School created the McCain-Ravenel Institute for Intellectual and Moral Courage, whose mission is to promote in students the values and principles that both men lived by. The McCain Institute dedicates its work specifically to the leadership legacy of the late senator through a commitment to serving a cause greater than self, empowering character-driven leaders, and advancing freedom, democracy and human rights. Over the past year, EHS and the McCain Institute have partnered in advancing character-driven leadership in EHS students and faculty alongside members of the Institute’s Next Generation Leaders Program.
In 2008, Senator McCain told EHS students, “I will always believe that there is a Mr. Ravenel somewhere for every child who needs him.” Both men’s lives clearly demonstrate the powerful ripple effect of a character-driven leader and mentor. Through its leadership programs, the McCain Institute seeks to develop more leaders of character who will have a positive ripple effect in their societies at home and abroad.
This commitment to character-driven leadership becomes even more important now as leaders around the globe face the monumental challenge of overcoming the adversity of the COVID pandemic. We can make no greater contribution to the Senator McCain’s memory in a world shaken by too much divisive hubris and too little common enterprise.
Ambassador Michael Polt (ret) is the Senior Director of Leadership Programs at the McCain Institute in Washington, DC. Jeremy Goldstein is Executive Director of the McCain-Ravenel Center for Intellectual and Moral Courage and a faculty member at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA.