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McCain used his influence on big things for the little guy


In this Oct. 17, 2015, photo, John McCain meets with veterans. (Photo by Timon Harper/Timon Harper Photography)

In this Oct. 17, 2015, photo, John McCain meets with veterans. (Photo by Timon Harper/Timon Harper Photography)

Sen. John McCain was a lot of things to a lot of people.

Hero. Statesman. Husband. Veteran. Politician. Friend. American. Maverick.

But McCain was also a man of the people.

Proof of that is no more evident than the thousands of people who waited outside the Capitol in the summer heat August 29 to pay their respects. Or from the outpouring of support for McCain and his family that erupted on social media.

It’s also obvious from the sheer number of people, many holding American flags and McCain campaign signs, who lined the path the motorcade carrying the senator’s body took to a memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church on August 30.

McCain died August 25 after battling brain cancer for more than a year. He was 81.

Many Arizonans have a McCain story, as do a slew of others across the country.

He was Arizona’s senior senator and one of the top-ranking officials on Capitol Hill, but he was never too big or too busy to help the little guy.

No one knows that better than Gibson McKay who, while serving as a legislative aide to McCain in the 1990s, was frequently on hot dog duty.

McCain was a big fan of the pure Vienna beef hot dogs at the Great Dane Dog House, a staple on Seventh Street in Phoenix.

“Hot dogs and coffee,” McKay said. “That guy survived on those two things alone.”

The shop was often their first stop when McCain arrived home from Washington, D.C.

McCain’s favorite dog? The Maxwell Street, a Polish sausage served with grilled onions, mustard, pickles, tomato and hot pepper.

The senator developed a rapport with the shop’s owner, Tony “Dane” Rigoli, a looming Italian American who steamed or grilled dogs on Seventh Street for three decades. The friendship was a testament to the type of person McCain was, a powerful senator who enjoyed connecting with everyday people.

“He loved bellying up to the hot dog bar or talking sports with the most common among us, whether you knew who he was or not,” McKay said.

One day McCain learned that Rigoli’s son was stationed in Germany while serving in the Army. The son’s wife was ill and needed treatment best offered stateside. McCain wrote a letter to the Army general in Germany urging him to reassign Rigoli’s son to a station in the United States and placed phone calls to high ranking Army officials to move the reassignment along.

“He made a call, wrote a letter, a couple of things like that, and that was it,” McKay said. “John McCain calls the general of the Army, they listen.”

McCain never told Rigoli what he had done. But the next time McKay went into the Great Dane for a dog, Rigoli was ecstatic to have his son and daughter-in-law back home.

“It was just his hot dog joint guy. The best lobbyist in the world is sometimes a hot dog joint guy,” McKay said.

When he was back in Arizona, McCain acted no differently than any other Arizonan. He went to sporting events and shopped for groceries at his local supermarket. He was Arizona’s favorite adopted son.

McCain wasn’t born in Arizona, but he quickly grew to love this state, saying often he was privileged to serve this state.

McCain, a Vietnam veteran, had a reputation for helping veterans, but he didn’t limit his services to just Arizonans.

In 2009, Jame Koopman of Aurora, Colo. was desperate to get his uncle’s Air Force records to show that he served during the time of the Vietnam War.

Koopman’s uncle, Fred Rivera Jr., had dementia and was desperately trying to get his benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The problem was, he didn’t have any of his military paperwork.

Koopman reached out to Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., to no avail. That’s when he contacted McCain’s office. After several letters back and forth with the senator’s office, he ended up getting his uncle’s records on microfilm.

He saved printed copies of the letters, and he has studied them so closely that he can tell McCain’s signature is a tad different on each letter. Because of that, Koopman is convinced McCain personally signed the letters.

“I just thought it was pretty cool because I’m nobody anyways,” Koopman said. “He didn’t have to answer back. He could have sent a letter saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you,’ but he helped out.”

Former McCain staffer Jim Waring said helping veterans was a point of pride in the late senator’s office.

Veterans from across the country would call the office because they either didn’t know how to get help elsewhere or they didn’t feel comfortable requesting help from their elected officials.

McCain staffers repeatedly heard veterans say, “I believe that he will help,” said Waring, who is the vice mayor of Phoenix.

“Veterans were convinced he was on their side,” he said.

Katherine Benton-Cohen, an Arizona native, can’t help but remember getting a tour of the U.S. Capitol and the Library of Congress from McCain.

Her mother, Jenice Benton, was tasked with decorating McCain’s office when he moved into the Russell Senate Building after first getting elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986. Benton-Cohen’s parents were Democrats, but they were also early supporters of McCain’s Senate bid.

On the tour, the young girl from Tempe was amazed by the Library of Congress and all its beauty and intricacies. But McCain was also in awe of the building, Benton-Cohen said.

“I just remember his enthusiasm, his exuberance and his respect for this beautiful place,” she said.

Now, as an associate professor of history at Georgetown University, she takes her students to the Library of Congress often.

McCain was “painfully deprived of his freedom,” but his suffering only made him more resolute in his mission to protect democracy for others, said Bettina Nava, the senator’s state director.

During her time working for McCain, one Sunday stands out.

Nava spoke to a grieving father first, but as soon as she told his story to McCain, the senator was on the phone ready to intervene.

The man’s daughter died while doing humanitarian work for a nonprofit abroad and the family couldn’t get her body back to the United States.

McCain intervened immediately, working on an international level to bring the young woman home to rest.

More than anything about that day, Nava recalls listening to McCain speak to the father.

“That’s one that I can hardly talk about it to this day,” she said.

He was reverent and respectful. She remembers him trying to maintain his composure and taking a deep breath as he got off the phone.

He felt those moments, which Nava estimated numbered well into the thousands, reminded him of why he had to persist.

“He knew how fragile democracy was, and he felt honored that he was entrusted to serve and ensure democracy’s safety,” Nava said.

McCain was devoted to helping people. His office acted as an agency in and of itself, intervening on behalf of citizens seeking assistance with everything from getting Social Security checks they relied on to seeking military honors for fellow veterans.

He touched too many lives to count exactly, she said.

“It’s beautiful for me to be looking on Facebook and Instagram and … everybody has a John McCain story. Everybody has a John McCain photo,” Nava said. “He was that accessible. He was just a man of the people.”

Staff writers Katie Campbell and Ben Giles contributed to this report.

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