WASHINGTON – When Sen. John McCain died Saturday at 81, the tributes were quick to mention his family's prestigious lineage within the American military. McCain's father and grandfather — both of whom shared his name — were the first father and son in Navy history to become full admirals.
But often overlooked is the influence of McCain's mother, Roberta. Now, at 106, she has outlived the child she still calls "Johnny," whose death she faced once before when he was shot down over Vietnam and presumed lost.
Roberta, who lives in Washington, spent years crisscrossing the globe, often alongside her identical twin, Rowena, eager for whatever adventure came next. She has ridden through the Jordanian desert in the dark of night, hopped a ferry to Macau and trekked through Europe on less than $5 per day.
Roberta and Rowena grew up traveling the country with their father, an oil wildcatter. Those trips would later serve as the blueprints for what Sen. McCain described as his mother's "mobile classroom" — one that could show her children the world's wonders in ways a four-walled classroom could not.
Roberta met John S. McCain Jr. as a 19-year-old student at the University of Southern California. McCain Jr., known as "Jack," was a Navy ensign serving on the battleship USS Oklahoma. Another ensign, who'd taken Roberta out a few times before, brought her onto the ship, where she crossed paths with Jack.
Roberta and Jack fell in love, but Roberta's mother banished the sailor from her home, Sen. McCain wrote in his memoir, "Faith of My Fathers." That did not deter Roberta. Instead, she and Jack eloped one weekend in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1933. The following Monday, she went back to USC to finish her exams.
Travel was a given for the wife of a naval officer, and Roberta and her children moved repeatedly.
In 1967, the McCains were in London when they received a call that their son's plane had been shot down. Roberta believed Johnny was dead.
Instead, he'd ejected and been captured by the North Vietnamese. "Can you believe that's the best news I ever heard in my life?" she told C-SPAN.
The next 5½ years were agonizing for his parents and brutal for McCain, who was imprisoned, bayoneted, beaten and tortured. When McCain was finally released in 1973, he was broken but alive.
For all her doting on her children and husband, Roberta took the reins of her own life too. In 2007, she described to the New York Times how once, when traveling through France in her 90s, Roberta was told she was too old to rent a car. So instead, she bought one. Afterward she shipped the car to the East Coast, where she picked it up and drove it to San Francisco, she told the Times.
In his memoir, McCain wrote that he "became my mother's son." "She taught me to find so much pleasure in life that misfortune could not rob me of the joy of living."