More than five decades before the Charleston area gave Sen. John McCain a crucial boost in his hopes of capturing the Republican presidential nomination, one of this city's native sons influenced McCain in a different but equally significant way — as a teacher, mentor and friend.
The story of the special bond between McCain and the late William B. Ravenel III is re-emerging as the presidential campaign remains in the media glare.
Ravenel, who taught McCain at Episcopal High School in Arlington, Va., died of a heart attack years ago at age 53 while McCain was being held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
But Ravenel's influence remains and can be recalled by his daughter, Katharine Ravenel, who has a home on Edisto Island, and by a former classmate, Charleston lawyer Edward Pritchard Jr.
As a child, William Ravenel was strongly influenced by his mother, Kate Owen Ravenel, and her sister, Mary Owen Geer, who were intelligent and devout and whose intellectual horizons extended far beyond the Holy City, Katharine Ravenel said. Geer drove an ambulance truck in Charleston during the first World War and later met Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in Moscow shortly before his death in 1924.
William Ravenel excelled at school and enrolled at Davidson College at age 17. He earned a master's degree at Duke University and accepted a teaching position at Episcopal High in 1936.
Ravenel quickly earned a reputation for being able to make Shakespeare's tragic characters come alive, and he struck up a close friendship with a more experienced English teacher, Robert Whittle, who had studied under Harvard University Shakespeare expert and literary critic George Kittredge.
But Ravenel's teaching career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served a few years in Gen. George Patton's Third Army.
One of his foremost war experiences was being among the first allies in the German death camp Buchenwald. Fluent in French and German, Ravenel told the mayor and council of the neighboring town about what occurred in the camp, and they invited the townspeople inside it to see the horrors for themselves. Shortly afterward, the mayor and his wife killed themselves.
Katharine Ravenel was about 4 years old when her father returned from the war and accepted a teaching job at a public high school in North Charleston. She said her father found it awkward to teach young women, some of whom had crushes on him, and reluctantly decided to leave the Lowcountry and return to his teaching job at the all-male Episcopal High in 1947.
Several years later, John McCain's parents sent him away to that boarding school. His father's military career had given McCain a transient upbringing and had made him rather incorrigible.
By his own admission, McCain was a bit of a misfit at Episcopal High. His 1954 yearbook write-up suggests as much: "It was three fateful years ago that the 'Punk' first crossed the threshold of the High School. In this time he has become infamous as one of our top-flight wrestlers, lettering for two seasons. His magnetic personality has won for him many life-long friends. But, as magnets must also repel, some have found him hard to get along with. John is remarkable for the amount of gray hair he has; this may come from his cramming for Annapolis or from his nocturnal perambulations on Ninth Street."
It was McCain's demerits that helped him forge his special bond with William Ravenel. "He did work off demerits raking leaves in our yard," Katharine Ravenel said. "I used to go out and talk with him. I had a little bit of a rebellious air about myself, and he did, too. We enjoyed each other even though there was a great age gap. I was in elementary school."
Ravenel said McCain has often wondered what her father saw in him, "but I think I know. ... I know it because of my own personal relationship with my father. My father could see potential in people, the makings of good or great character. He could see intelligence that is not necessarily bookish intelligence but intelligence. He had great insight into young people.
"The reason he (McCain) was rebellious-seeming and leaving campus and all that stuff was that he was in a very tight, traditional world, which was the same world I was brought up in, and my father had been brought up in Charleston," Ravenel said.
In McCain's autobiography, "Faith of My Fathers," he recalls an incident during which the junior varsity football team was deciding how to punish a teammate who had broken the rules. William Ravenel coached the team but urged the players to work out the punishment among themselves as he looked on. The early mood was to kick him off the team, but McCain was among the first to come to the player's defense. The team eventually came around, and Ravenel later praised McCain, saying the right decision had been made.
Edward Pritchard Jr. was two years behind McCain but got to know him through the wrestling team, where McCain excelled.
"He wrestled, and I wrestled. That's how I got to know him best," Pritchard said. "John was tough, just like his whole life. He doesn't give up. He doesn't quit."
McCain left Episcopal High, enrolled in the Naval Academy, became a Navy fighter pilot and was shot down over Vietnam, where he was held as a prisoner of war for years. As McCain recalls in "Faith of My Fathers," the one person he most wanted to see upon his release, other than family members, was Ravenel.
Unfortunately, Ravenel had died of a heart attack two years earlier.
"I felt he was someone to whom I could explain what had happened to me, and who would understand," McCain recalls in his book. "That is a high tribute to Mr. Ravenel. For I have never met a prisoner of war who felt he could explain the experience to anyone who had not shared it."
Not long after McCain returned home, Pritchard saw him on Sullivan's Island, where McCain was visiting his brother, Joe. But although Pritchard had followed McCain's career in the Arizona Senate from a distance, the two didn't really reconnect until McCain's 2000 presidential bid. That's when McCain asked Pritchard if he would bring Ravenel's widow, Ruth Tisdale "Tiz" Geer, who had since remarried, to his presidential announcement.
"Whenever I would talk to him, he would always ask about Tiz," Pritchard said. She died in 2004 at age 84.
Around that time, Katharine Ravenel's brother sent McCain two photos of their father. She said it was noted during a "60 Minutes" interview with McCain that he had framed them and placed them near his Senate desk.
Katharine Ravenel still lives part time in Chicago, home base of a possible Democratic opponent for McCain, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. As a self-described "lockstep Democrat," she said she's conflicted about for whom to vote.
"I think he (McCain) is an extremely principled man and I don't think he would surround himself with 'yes' men and women," she said. "I think he will have a more moderating influence as president than this criticism of his election being a third term of George Bush."
Pritchard, who closely followed McCain's Lowcountry campaign stops during the past year, is not as conflicted. He said he plans to resign his seat on the State Election Commission today so he can openly campaign for McCain.
Earlier this month, Pritchard was one of four Episcopal High classmates whom McCain had asked to join him for a special town hall meeting at the school. Then, McCain asked Pritchard to introduce him.
"It's kind of exciting to think that a guy you went to high school with has a decent chance of being elected president of the United States," he said. "Not many people can say that."
Somewhere, an old English teacher is smiling.