Originally Published: August 27, 2018 8:28 p.m.
The historic Senator Drive-In sign on Senator Highway is regularly outfitted with special messages for holidays, remembrances, and special occasions — all thanks to a couple Prescott High School alums who maintain the sign post as a town landmark.
On Sunday, the core sign keepers, 1963 PHS Badgers Jane Orr and Stephen Rogers, with the help of 2018 Prescott High junior Nathan Goligoski, posted a poignant marquee: a tribute to U.S. Sen. John McCain, Arizona’s senior, six-term senator who succumbed to brain cancer a day earlier.
On one side of the sign is an American flag and on the other is an Arizona flag. The words in between read, “Senator McCain — We Salute Your Lifetime of Service.”
“His interior courage was just remarkable,” said Rogers, a native Arizona and Vietnam-era veteran who wanted to honor the statesman revered as a state and national public servant by even those who disagreed with his political stands.
A longtime admirer of McCain’s heroism and political style that enabled him to curry favor with his Democratic opponents, Rogers said he wanted to pay homage to McCain’s legacy before his death. Timing, though, was not in his favor. So he and Orr worked together to erect a message as quickly as it could be arranged.
“He was a pretty great guy,” Orr said as her voice quavered with emotion. “He was our senator. And he loved Arizona.”
Prescott Vietnam prisoner-of-war Ronald Byrne Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, knows the sacrifices McCain made for his country, and said the late senator’s “integrity and great dignity” deserve to be lauded.
At one point in his seven years as a North Vietnamese prisoner, Byrne was assigned to a room in the “Hanoi Hilton” next door to where McCain was held captive. He remembers watching one day as McCain hid behind an outdoor tank giving hand signals to his fellow prisoners, a risky move that could have prompted severe torture.
“Yet he was dedicated to his job in great danger, but it was something that needed to be done and he did it,” Byrne said.
In later years, Byrne attended a POW reunion in California where McCain was the host, and “I could tell from the way he handled himself and the way he spoke he was going to go places.”
Former Prescott Mayor Harry Oberg, a retired Army colonel who spent 33 years in the military, hailed McCain’s legacy as an American icon.
On several occasions, the fellow Republican met McCain and swapped military stories; both men earned Purple Hearts and endured the strain of the war in Vietnam.
“John McCain was a national hero of impeccable integrity who provided unparalleled serve to our country,” Oberg said.
The 1960 Prescott valedictorian and lawyer Dave Lange, a retired Army captain who earned a Silver Star for his valor in Vietnam, called McCain a man of “great courage who lived by principles rather than expediency.”
Even after he was captured and wounded, McCain opted to serve his country, a noble deed regardless of one’s politics, Lange said.
“I’ve always been grateful for John’s service, his endurance and courage,” Lange said. “I loved the man. I didn’t always agree with him on political matters, although I mostly did, but he was an inspiration to me and to others.”
In a news release on Monday, the Northern Arizona Veteran Affairs Health Care System in Prescott called McCain a “monumental advocate for veterans” who will be missed. VA officials offered their sympathy to the McCain family.
U.S. Vets Prescott Executive Director Carole Benedict said she will never forget McCain’s visit two years ago to the agency’s transitional living home, taking time to offer hope to their once-homeless veterans.
“It was a lovely visit,” Benedict recalled. “I remember the veterans being so touched, and so awed, that such a great man would take the time to come and chat with them.
“We are very sad with his passing, and grateful for his service and all he did for our country and the veterans we serve.”
Yavapai County Board of Supervisor Craig Brown, a retired Army staff sergeant who also served in Vietnam, said he may not have always agreed with McCain on politics but said there is no doubt that he is an “American hero.”
“When he came home, I had tears in my eyes,” Brown said.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.