Helen Howard is a legend in her own right. At age 55, she retired from her 23-year career as an insurance claim adjuster to follow her passion, building Desert River Outfitters, a premier canoe and kayak guiding outfit in northwestern Arizona. Now age 70, in addition to the thousands of hours she’s racked up on myriad U.S. rivers, Helen is gearing up for her twelfth trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; the third in the Susie Too, a dory boat she built herself.
Before that, though, Helen was John McCain’s paper girl.
In 1983, Helen was 35. She was two years into her career in insurance, and, although the job was good and covered her mortgage and regular bills, it didn’t cover the extra $18,000 in physical therapy expenses that hit after an accident. Healthcare in the U.S., amirite, friends? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
So Helen started throwing 225 papers per day for the Arizona Republic. More on Sundays. The job paid $220 a week. It took 18 months plus squirreling away other funds to pay off the bill, and, along the way, Helen delivered the paper to Senator McCain — House Representative McCain at the time.
“I picked up papers in bundles at 3:00am, drove home to band them, then drove my route with the route cards on my lap to make sure I hit every address. John McCain was close to the end, so I usually got to his home about 5:15am, finished up at 5:30am, went home again, showered, and drove to work for a 7:00am start,” Helen said.
“One morning, Representative McCain was standing on his driveway waiting for his newspaper. He stopped me and asked if he could get his paper delivered a little earlier since he had trouble sleeping and really wanted to read it before he started his day. As a political junkie, died-in-the-wool Democrat, and conservation activist, I knew, of course, who he was. We’d met a time or two at public functions but he didn’t recognize me in the dark, in sweats, doing what I was doing.
“By driving his street first on the way to banding the papers, I added about a mile to my route, and it wasn’t too much trouble. He got my phone number and had one of his staff call me when he was back in Washington and did not need it delivered early, then had them call me to start up the early deliveries when he came back to Phoenix. Representative McCain gave me a big tip every three months when the bill was presented and sent a personal Christmas Card to my home address.
“I have since met Senator McCain several times over the years, either at public events or at funerals of people we both knew well — and I called and wrote his office frequently to discuss policy — and he has always remembered me. I did not agree with everything he said or did, but he was a fine human being and a great resource for Arizona and the United States. I will miss him.”
I saw Helen’s tribute to Senator McCain this morning on Facebook, and I asked if I could share it with you. Helen, you see, is one of my most loyally liberal friends. A Democrat through and through. I’ve spent nights with her on paddling trips, cooking over an open fire — the woman can cook a full turkey dinner with all the trimmings on a campfire — while she tells story after story, and she’s not one to shy away from politics or their implications on America’s land or her people. Helen is fierce. Helen is confident. Helen is smart. And there’s no question in my mind that Senator McCain heard Helen loud and clear. And often.
The thing is, though — he listened.
And he saw her. Even when she was “just” a paper girl.
And that’s what this story is about. That’s why it’s important.
The tributes coming out today on John McCain cross political barriers. Words of praise from conservatives and liberals alike. In a country full of people who are desperate to be seen, who long to have open and authentic discussions full of grace, respect, and compassion, who wish to preserve friendships with people whose positions we sometimes vehemently oppose, we crave this kind of leadership. We yearn for this kind of example. We want this kind of backbone and kindness and relationship ethic. We want to disagree with policies and positions while tending, always, to the people.
If we’re going to honor the career and service of a man like John McCain — who was human and fallible and sometimes an ass, but also kept trying and thinking and changing and seeing the people he worked so hard to serve, which made him, frankly, as great as any of us can hope to be — then we owe it to ourselves not to simply long for days-gone-by when there were McCains in America who treated their colleagues with respect. We owe it to ourselves to build McCains into our future. To champion them. To elect them. To defend them, human and all. To listen. And to see.
Here’s to you, Maverick. May you rest in peace.