by Kevin Fahy
About eight years ago, I was interviewed by the Education Market Association for an article in its member publication, Essentials. I was given a list of questions that were designed to give readers a more personal glimpse into my life, like what was my favorite movie, what book was I reading and what kind of car did I drive.
One question asked who my hero was, and my answer was John McCain. I wasn’t asked to elaborate and I didn’t, which probably left many people with the impression that it was some sort of political statement. It was not.
By now I’m sure everyone knows that McCain endured five-and-a-half years of torture and abuse in a North Vietnamese prison, and that he refused release until all others were released as well. That’s not the reason he’s a hero to me either, or at least it’s not the whole reason.
Few people survive a catastrophe on an airplane, but McCain survived a number of them. As a young pilot practicing landing on an aircraft carrier, for example, his plane suffered engine failure and crashed into Corpus Christi Bay. He was knocked unconscious when the aircraft hit the water, and only awakened when it hit the bottom of the bay. McCain managed to get the canopy open and swim to the surface, where he was plucked from the sea by a helicopter.
In 1967, McCain was involved in the worst accident in the history of the U.S. Navy. He was in the cockpit of his A4 Skyhawk on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Forrestal when an electrical malfunction caused another aircraft to fire a missile. The missile struck the fuel tank of McCain’s plane, which erupted in a fireball that quickly rolled across the deck. Somehow McCain escaped from the burning wreckage and went about trying to fight the fire and rescue other pilots, until he was struck by shrapnel from exploding ordinance. The disaster took 134 lives.
Later that same year, on his 23rd combat mission, McCain’s airplane was struck by a surface-to-air missile and crashed into a lake in Hanoi. That was only the beginning of a harrowing experience that most of us cannot even imagine.
That a person could endure all that, and laugh about it, was astonishing. I went to hear him speak, and found a man of barely contained energy and enthusiasm, a man intensely interested in everything and everyone. He had an acerbic wit that was most often directed at himself, and in general he just seemed to be having a great time.
After he spoke, I went up to the stage and shook his hand, something I have never felt inclined to do with any other speaker. My wife did not shake his hand, but simply put her hand on his back as he passed by. She told me that she had somehow felt compelled to touch him.
During his funeral services, one of the TV commentators mentioned that this sort of compulsion always followed McCain. Wherever he spoke to a group, people just wanted to touch him, to feel connected to such an extraordinary life.
The same week that McCain passed away in August, another man died who had a major effect on my life. I met Tom Williams 46 years ago, when both of us were transferring into a small liberal arts college in upstate New York.
These two guys could hardly have come from more different backgrounds. McCain was born to an old and distinguished military family, while Tom grew up in a very rural farmhouse with seven siblings and no indoor plumbing. Nonetheless, they had a great deal in common.
Both were Vietnam veterans who were known for a quick wit and a quick temper. Both were brash, irreverent, physically fearless party animals. In college, Tom and I went out carousing nearly every night for two years.
I could tell you a lot of stories from those nights, but I won’t. This is a family publication, and I’m not particularly proud of having been so irresponsible. It was a lot of fun though.
Tom also tended bar in a local night spot, where I frequently dropped in for a 25-cent draft beer. It was watching Tom at that job, where he remembered every customer’s name and what he drank, and kept everyone laughing, that made me think of him years later when I was looking for a salesman.
In 1979 I was put in charge of a company called Instructor Curriculum Materials, which was a subsidiary of Harcourt-Brace. I hired Tom to manage dealer sales, and together we got to know just about everyone in the school supply business. When Harcourt broke up ICM, Tom went to work for Beckley-Cardy and I went into the printing business.
A couple years later I heard that Educational Dealer magazine was for sale, and once again I called Tom. “Let’s buy it,” he said, and that’s how quickly we decided to start this company 35 years ago.
Tom left the business 17 years ago, but those of you who have been around a while probably knew him, and may well have your own story. For you younger folks, I’ll just relate one instance that will give you some insight on a unique individual.
We were working a school supply show in Albuquerque, which was not known at the time for its downtown nightlife. Tom and I came back from a dinner with clients and decided that we would have a drink in the hotel bar, just the two of us.
When we walked into the bar we found it deserted, closed up for the night even though it was only about 10 p.m. We noticed, however, that above the back bar there was a display of about 40 different bottles of beer, intended to show patrons the selection that was offered.
“Well,” Tom said, “any port in a storm.” So he climbed over the bar, got down a bottle for each of us, and opened them. While he was standing behind the bar, a group of hotel guests wandered in, looking confused. One man asked Tom if the bar was open.
“We are now,” he replied. “What would you like? I’ve got one of everything.”
Tom would say anything to anyone. One time I remember we were driving through Washington, D.C., with Tom at the wheel, when we were pulled over by the police. The cop walked up to our driver’s window and said, “This is a one-way street.”
Tom looked up at him and said, “I was only going one way.”
He got away with it, just like he always got away with insulting everyone, because of his intrinsic good nature. When Tom made fun of you, he did it to make you laugh.
In the end, I think that is what John McCain and Tom Williams really had in common. They loved people, and it showed.
I’ll miss them.