I think we all understand John McCain best when we understand his passionate love for this country and her ideals. He always told us that he only really fell in love with her when he was deprived of her freedom and aspiration during his five-plus years in captivity in Hanoi. He came home and, as you know, immediately said that he believed the greatest responsibility of his life beyond his family would be to serve the country that he loved, and to seek the benefits of her freedom for all who live here, and for those abroad.

He did that. John McCain defined an American patriot.

In the work that we shared for education, his deepest passion was for the idea that families whose children were denied access to quality schools would be able to choose their school. In his speech to the NAACP in 2008, he said the following:

Over the years, Americans have heard a lot of “tired rhetoric” about education. We've heard it in the endless excuses of people who seem more concerned about their own position than about our children. We've heard it from politicians who accept the status quo rather than stand up for real change in our public schools. Parents ask only for schools that are safe, teachers who are competent, and diplomas that open doors of opportunity. When a public system fails, repeatedly, to meet these minimal objectives, parents ask only for a choice in the education of their children. Some parents may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private school. Many will choose a charter school. No entrenched bureaucracy or union should deny parents that choice and children that opportunity.

What interested him most was trying to liberate our school system from tired policies that denied access to great schools for the most challenged among us, but also removing the constraints around teaching that kept our best teachers and school leaders from bringing what they knew best about how to teach children to scale. You sense the same commitment to personal freedom of action in these education issues that he brought to all of his work.

One of my fondest memories of Senator McCain was that he accepted my invitation for him to join an event in D.C. the day before President-elect Obama’s inauguration. The event was one that Reverend Al Sharpton and Joel Klein had originally organized as part of the Education Equality campaign. Everybody from Newt Gingrich, to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to the performing artist Common came to speak about what was needed for students as the new administration took office. Imagine walking into that event being the guy who wasn’t being inaugurated the next day, and this is how you choose to allocate your time. These issues mattered enormously to him.

John was my mentor and my friend, my role model and hero. I learned from him that it was really okay to be audacious and seek what you truly believed was right, in spite of what people told you was possible. I learned it was actually okay to say “I was wrong” and seek to improve—right out loud in public. He had little patience for less than total commitment, and really got teed off when he thought I or anybody else was not giving our all and for the right reasons.

He was funny and amazingly thoughtful. After I decided to run for state school superintendent against an already announced Republican, I assumed he could not be supportive and would not have asked him to pick a side. But he called me and asked if I had a chairman, to which I said “No.” He said “Well you do now… Don’t lose!”

John McCain was our guide-star, and you can hear in everybody’s voice that we knew we would lose this giant. But we are grateful beyond imagination that we had him in the first place, and could share in even a small part of what he was.

Lisa Keegan is the CEO of the Arizona Chamber Foundation and a former Arizona State Superintendent of Schools.

Lisa Keegan