McCain the 'Punk' Goes Back to School

GOP contender credits Episcopal teacher for turning life around.


April 1, 2008— -- John McCain is a punk. At least that's what the editors of his high school yearbook thought.

"It was a fateful three years ago that the "Punk" first crossed the threshold of the High School," wrote the editors of the red-leather edition of "The Whispers," a glossy yearbook chronicling the achievements of the 1954 class of Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.

"His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends," the yearbook continued, "but, as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with."

More than 50 years later, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., returned triumphantly to Episcopal, a little less "punk" and a lot more "most likely to succeed."

McCain traveled back to the private school's campus Tuesday, the second stop on a week-long biography tour intended to reintroduce the senator to the American public.

"I'm happy to be back at Episcopal, my alma mater, which I have many happy memories of, and a few that I'm sure former teachers, school administrators and I would rather forget," McCain, who in addition to "Punk" was known as "McNasty" during his high school years.

The senator, oldest son of John Sidney McCain Jr., a four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific naval forces in Vietnam, conceded, "Until I enrolled at Episcopal, my education had been constantly disrupted by the demands of my father's naval career, which required us to move so often that I lost track of the number of schools I attended."

McCain arrived at Episcopal, a sprawling, private preparatory institution in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in 1952.

On the Episcopal Web site, the High School, as it is known by students and alumni, describes EHS in the 1950s as an all-boys school with 240 students 22 faculty members and "annual tuition was $1,400."

"I arrived [at Episcopal] a pretty rambunctious boy, with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," McCain, now the presumed Republican nominee for president said Tuesday. "I was always the new kid, and was accustomed to proving myself quickly at each new school as someone not to be challenged lightly."

Indeed, McCain won none of the honors that might be expected of a future presidential contender.

The 1954 class did not see fit to distinguish "McNasty" in any notable category -- Brightest, Lady-Killer, Chummiest, Polite, Funniest, Popular, Admired, Likely to Succeed, Bull Slinger, Intellectual, Ambitious, or even, and perhaps to the surprise of many journalists or his competitors, Publicity Hound.

Instead, he took only second place in the category of "Thinks He's Hardest," presumably a knock on his tough-guy character.

"As a young man," McCain admitted last Thursday, "I would respond aggressively and sometimes irresponsibly to anyone whom I perceived to have questioned my sense of honor and self-respect. Those responses often got me in a fair amount of trouble earlier in life."

The Arizona senator acknowledged that some habits die hard -- even if it's been 50 years.

"In all candor, as an adult I've been known to forget occasionally the discretion expected of a person of my years and station when I believe I've been accorded a lack of respect I did not deserve," McCain said.

"But I believe if my detractors had known me at Episcopal, they might marvel at the self-restraint and mellowness I developed as an adult. Or perhaps they wouldn't quite see it that way," he joked.

McCain made several references to the "unruly passions of youth" in his biography speech Tuesday.

In his first year at Episcopal, McCain, like all new students was known as a "rat," a tradition the senator described as "borrowed" from military academies.

McCain didn't much like the nickname, saying he made his resentment clear "in my usual immature ways to upperclassman and school officials, piling up demerits and earning the distinction at the end of the year as 'worst rat.'"

McCain's only two activities listed for 1952 are member of the E Club and waiter.

In the subsequent two years, his activities expanded to wrestling (weighing in at 127 pounds), football (though he describes himself a "mediocre athlete"), and, notably absent on the EHS Web site, membership in a club called Egypt, which is detailed in the 1954 yearbook as "the type of smoking club any school would be proud to have."

Although, it should be noted, the yearbook goes on to defend it. "Although Egypt has had a bad reputation in past years, the neatness and order that now prevail in Stewart basement are raising Egypt from the status of a club which has been tolerated by the school to that of one in which the school can take pride."

According to Episcopal, students in the 1950s were required to take English, mathematics, American history and a foreign language, in addition to one religion course. Prayer attendance was required after breakfast and dinner, and the school week went from Tuesday to Saturday.

But, as McCain explained, it was not his brushes with demerits (or even the law in some notorious incidents) that set him straight.

It was the caring of one teacher: Willam Bee Ravenel.

"Were William B. Ravenel the only person I remembered from Episcopal," McCain recounted Tuesday and, as ABC News' John Berman points out, in his bestselling autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers", "I would credit those days among the best in my life."

"His influence in my life was more important and more benevolent than that of any person outside my family," McCain recounted in remembering Ravenel, who headed Episcopal's English department and had served with distinction in World War II.

"As luck would have it," McCain said, "I was ordered to work off my demerits in Mr. Ravenel's yard. I don't know if school authorities were intentionally doing me a favor and knew that Mr. Ravenel would be able to help repair the all-too-evident flaws in my personality."

McCain explained that he "discussed all manner of subjects with him, from sports to the short stories of Somerset Maugham; from his combat experiences to my future. He was one of the few people to whom I confided that I was bound for Annapolis and a Navy career, and to whom I confessed my reservations about my fate."

Ever mischievous, on page 37 of his yearbook in a section titled "Last Will and Testament," McCain "leaves Senator McCarthy to Mr. Ravenel," to whom the book is dedicated by the entire student body.

Nevertheless, 50 years later, Ravenel's influence over the presidential contender is still evident.

"Speaking personally," McCain said on the campus of his his high school, "I doubt I will ever meet another person who had the impact on my life that my English teacher at Episcopal High School did."

"I have never forgotten the confidence Mr. Ravenel's praise and trust in me gave me. Nor have I forgotten the man who praised me. Many years later, when I came home from Vietnam, Mr. Ravenel was the only person outside of my family whom I wanted to see urgently."

McCain's wish could not be granted; William Ravenel died of a heart attack in 1971 at the age of 53.

"I regret that I was never able to pay him that tribute," McCain said, describing "a loss I still find difficult to accept.

"But 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."