ANNAPOLIS, Maryland — Sixty years ago, he scraped by to graduate, a restless young man with the well-earned reputation of a rebel.

A U.S. Naval Academy yearbook noted his “bouts with the academic and executive departments contributed much to the stockpiles of legends within the hall.”

On a warm, sunny Sunday, under blue skies punctuated with clouds, the remains of John Sidney McCain III were laid in a grave near that of his best friend from that Class of 1958.

Finally, at rest.

A private service closed the final chapter on earth for a man who lived the most public of lives.

McCain died Aug. 25 at age 81 — a six-term senator from Arizona, a two-time presidential candidate and a celebrated POW in the Vietnam War.

His legacy of service and love of family were celebrated in a series of tributes and memorials in Phoenix and Washington, D.C. — events choreographed by McCain himself.

Speakers, including his daughter Meghan, highlighted his strengths: civility, humility and bipartisanship. In turn, they called into question the divisive, partisan approach favored by President Donald Trump — a man to whom McCain gave no quarter and little respect.  

But this final event was open just to family, friends and select invited guests.

Flags, memories and well wishes

Well wishers began lining the route of McCain’s motorcade hours before the afternoon services began, some carrying U.S. flags on the steamy summer day.

A pair of fire engines hoisted a massive American flag over the six-lane highway connecting Washington, D.C., to Annapolis so that it would be visible by those accompanying McCain’s body to the city.

The hearse holding McCain’s casket slowly rolled by a crowd of several hundred people outside the academy just before 2 p.m.

Some held elaborate signs with photos of McCain. One sign said McCain was “all (President Donald) Trump is not.” Another, written simply with a marker on yellow construction paper, said only “Thank you.”

Chandra Bappanad, who said she is retired from the banking industry, was trying to get a glimpse of the McCain motorcade through one of the academy’s gates. She lives nearby on Maryland Avenue.

“I already went to D.C., stood in the heat for two hours,” said Bappanad, referring to Friday’s long line to get inside the U.S. Capitol Rotunda where McCain lay in state. “It’s just interesting to see. When they’re right across the street, why not?”

After reading all about McCain’s life, she said, “it just makes you proud to be an American.”

Nia Wright came from Lanham, Maryland, with her husband, Michael Barnes.

“We just wanted to come to pay our respects to a great patriot,” Wright said. “For me as an African-American woman, I really very much appreciated his stance that all men are created equal. And he lived it. And he did it. And he showed it. Just wanted to pay my respects and say thank you.”

Wright, who works in the health-care industry, is a Republican while Barnes, a photographer, is a Democrat.

“He was truly bipartisan, kind of like our marriage,” Wright said of McCain.

Farther from the academy’s walls, it mostly was a typical Sunday on the quiet streets of Annapolis.

Locals took in brunch at Middleton Tavern, established 1750. They enjoyed their boats in the water along Dock Street. Children fed the ducks.

A few people on the street said they were there because of McCain. Some expressed disappointment that the Naval Academy only was allowing military family members to enter the campus.

Daniel Black, who works in accounting and who considers himself politically independent, also had kind words for McCain as he ate an ice cream cone in front of the Storm Bros. Ice Cream Factory on Dock Street.

“He did a lot for the country,” said Black, who lives in Columbia, Maryland, and happened to be visiting Annapolis on McCain’s burial day. “He was a model leader, in my opinion.”

From over the wall, military-style drumming and music could be near the Naval Academy chapel starting about 1:30 p.m. local time.

Once the ceremony began, some residents of nearby homes stood on their porches to peer over the academy walls in hopes of catching a glimpse of the proceedings.

They didn’t have much luck.


John Graves, an Army veteran, belts out the National Anthem in an emotional moment on Aug. 29, 2018, as tribute to John McCain.
Laura Gómez, The Republic |

Military flourishes, old and new

As a Navy aviator, McCain was shot down over North Vietnam and was held as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973.

The senator’s 32-year-old son, John “Jack” Sidney McCain IV, graduated from the Naval Academy in 2009 and was expected to play a central part in the ceremony at the Naval Academy Chapel, which was closed to the media.

Jack McCain, a Navy helicopter pilot and instructor, was planning to wear his father’s Navy aviator wings when he delivered his eulogy. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and one of McCain’s closest friends, and David Petraeus, the retired U.S. Army general, also were set to deliver tributes to McCain.

Son Doug McCain, a retired Navy pilot, was to give a reading at the service, as was Mark Salter, McCain’s former chief of staff. Salter was often called McCain’s alter-ego because he collaborated on several books with the senator.

Frank Gamboa, McCain’s Naval Academy roommate and vice president of the Class of 1958, was one of McCain’s pallbearers. So was Everett Alvarez, Jr., who was a POW with McCain during the Vietnam War.


Sen. John McCain discusses his most enduring contribution to the Senate during an interview with The Arizona Republic on Aug. 3, 2017. Thomas Hawthorne/

Coming full circle

McCain’s services at the Naval Academy brought his life story full circle. He was be buried near his lifelong friend, Admiral Chuck Larson, who graduated from the Naval Academy with McCain’s Class of 1958. Larson died in 2014.

McCain often would note on the campaign trail that he wasn’t the best student at the Naval Academy. 

A capsule bio of McCain in an old Naval Academy yearbook described his personality and antics:

“Sturdy conversationalist and party man. John’s quick wit and clever sarcasm made him a welcome man at any gathering. His bouts with the academic and executive departments contributed much to the stockpiles of legends within the hall.”

In an October 2017 speech to the Naval Academy’s Brigade of Midshipmen, McCain reflected on his bleak Naval Academy record. 

“Yes, I was once one of you. Six decades ago — in the age of sail — I was an undistinguished member of the Class of 1958,” McCain said in his remarks. “My superiors didn’t hold me in very high esteem in those days. Their disapproval was measured in the hundreds of miles of extra duty I marched in my time here. To be honest, I wasn’t too thrilled to be here back then, and I was as relieved to graduate — fifth from the bottom of my class — as the Naval Academy was to see me go.”


Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

But McCain also told the midshipmen that he later realized “that I had underestimated the effectiveness of my education here” and “hadn’t fully appreciated all that the Academy was trying to teach me.”

McCain is the son and grandson of Navy admirals. Adm. John “Slew” McCain, the grandfather, was a member of the Naval Academy’s Class of 1906 and played a major role during World War II. Adm. John “Jack” Sidney McCain Jr., McCain’s father, graduated in the Class of 1931. He also had a distinguished World War II record.

In the 2017 speech, McCain noted that son Jack McCain had a different experience in Annapolis.

“My son, Jack, is the non-conformist in the family,” McCain said at the time, according to the text of his remarks published on his official Senate website. “He managed to reach the upper half of his class, even to be a midshipman officer. But his forbears, though less accomplished midshipmen, nevertheless left here to devote the rest of their lives to our country, in war and peace, good times and bad. And each of us considered himself to be the luckiest man on earth.”

The missing man flyover

Photos showed a horse-drawn caisson carried the casket containing McCain’s to his burial site, his family following behind.

And in the sunny blue sky, four supersonic fighter jets sped by. Four F-18 planes in the shape of a V: the missing man flyover formation.

The lead plane pulled up vertical, moving out of the formation, signaling the nation’s loss.

The aerial salute was the final tribute to McCain. No longer known as the class rebel, he was remembered as the maverick who charted his own remarkable course.

John Fritze of USA TODAY contributed to this story.

Dan Nowicki is The Arizona Republic’s national politics editor. Follow him on Twitter, @dannowicki.


Read or Share this story: