After graduating from the United States Naval Academy in 1958, McCain began a 22-year career as a naval aviator. In 1967, he was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner-of-war in Hanoi for five-and-a-half years (1967-1973), much of it in solitary confinement. He retired from the Navy as a Captain in 1981. McCain's naval honors include the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, and Distinguished Flying Cross.
A former high school teacher of mine, Mr. William Ravenel, changed my life. I was the son of a naval officer who led a transient life. When I was at a boy's boarding
school of mostly southern well-off families, Mr. Ravenel gave me some moorings and a compass. He was a man of such admirable qualities. He had been a football player at Duke, he'd been in World War II in General Patten's tank corps, he still served in the Army Reserve, and he was a coach of a junior varsity team that I was on. Believe it or not, he made Shakespeare come alive. He used his classroom as not only a way to teach English, but also to teach values, and standards, and morals.
Mr. Ravenel was so admirable you wanted to be like him. And it wasn't just me, but the other boys as well. He seized the advantage to impart on us the honor code that was part of the school there, and the teaching of the various classics. He somehow imparted not just the telling of them, but the meaning of them. That had a great impact.
I discussed all manner of subjects with him, from sports to the stories of Somerset Maugham, from his combat experiences to my future. 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.
One instance in particular stands out in my memory as a moment when Mr. Ravenel's support really boosted my confidence. Training rules were a part of the honor code that you signed and agreed to observe. In the fall of my senior year, a member of the junior varsity football team had broken training and faced expulsion from the team. Mr. Ravenel called a team meeting during which players argued that the accused be dropped from the team and referred to the honor council. I didn't think that was fair. Since the student in question had, unlike the rest of us, chosen at the start of the year not to sign a pledge promising to abide by the training rules faithfully, I argued in favor of a less severe punishment.
Most of my teammates wanted to hang the guy. But I argued that since he had not been caught breaking training but instead had confessed the offense and expressed his remorse freely, his behavior was no less honorable than that of a student who signed the pledge and adhered to its provisions. My defense swayed the people in the room, about twenty or thirty guys. Mr. Ravenel closed the discussion by voicing support for my judgment.
After the meeting broke up, Mr. Ravenel approached me and shook my hand. With relief evident in his voice, he told me we had done the right thing, and thanked me for my efforts. He allowed that before the meeting he had been anxious about its outcome. He had hoped the matter would be resolved as it had been, but was uncertain it would. Still, he had not wanted to be the one who argued for exoneration; he wanted the decision to be ours and not his. He said he was proud of me. That was very important to me.
I have never forgotten the confidence his praise gave me. Nor did I ever forget the man who praised me. Years later, during the time I was imprisoned in Vietnam, I thought about Mr. Ravenel a lot. He was the one who reinforced in me the standards of honorable behavior. I was faced with several decisions and one in particular, would I accept an offer of the Vietnamese to go home early? I thought about the fact that Mr. Ravenel had been in combat in World War II and thus had a feel for what I was involved in. And I really believed, as I thought about it and considered it, that Mr. Ravenel wouldn't look favorably upon such a decision, because it was not an honorable one. So, I refused the offer...
After I returned home, Mr. Ravenel was the only person outside of my family who I wanted to see, because his approval or disapproval of me was probably more important than anyone else in my life, outside of my father. I felt he was someone to whom I could explain what happened to me, and who would understand. That is a high tribute to Mr. Ravenel.
I regret that I was never able to pay him that tribute. Upon return I found that my mentor had passed on. Mr. Ravenel had died of a heart attack two years before my release from prison. He lived for only 53 years. His early death was a great loss to his family, friends, and students, and to everyone who had been blessed with his company; a loss I found difficult to accept.
Were William B. Ravenel the only person I remembered from high school, I would credit those days as among the best of my life. He was an inspirational man, and I wasn't the only one that he inspired. His influence over my life, while perhaps not apparent to most who have observed its progress, was more important and more benevolent than that of any other person save members of my family.
I think that a mentor can help you through difficult periods, help you see the difference between right and wrong. The world is more complicated for children today than it ever was when I was growing up. A mentor can provide you with the kind of idealism that you can look up to and attempt to emulate. What I believe young people find very useful is someone that they can contact and interact with, and frankly express their doubts and their concerns and their questions. We have found through scientific study that a mentor can dramatically impact a young person's life. I knew that Mr. Ravenel had a great impact on me. But I don't think I really understood how deeply he impacted me until I was in prison, because it was his example I looked to when I was tempted to do something which was less than honorable.
Excerpted in part from Faith of My Fathers by John McCain with Mark Salter.