Kelly: Healing visit restores Chuck Hagel’s bond with dying mentor - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, July 21, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 11:08 pm
Kelly: Healing visit restores Chuck Hagel’s bond with dying mentor

A four-vehicle security caravan pulled up to the One Pacific Place apartments, and two old friends soon met — healing a rift.

“Hello, Mr. Secretary,” an old man said, greeting his visitor with a smile. For the first time in years, they embraced.

Away from the news media, at about 5:45 p.m. on June 19, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made a private visit to his long-ago mentor, former U.S. Rep. John Y. McCollister of Omaha.

Once described as having a father-son relationship, the pair had a falling out six years ago. McCollister had criticized then-U.S. Sen. Hagel for his critiques of the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War.

“I greatly regret our divisions over this, but they are real,” the ex-congressman told me for a 2007 column. “I feel terrible about it.”

Time heals wounds, but it doesn’t heal cancer — from which McCollister is dying at 92. Hagel asked his advance staff to schedule a meeting.

“It was a great visit,” McCollister said. “The differences of the past, while not forgotten, shrink in comparison to the affection we have for each other.”

Said Hagel: “My reaching out to John was about our relationship. We had drifted away from each other.”

McCollister, a South Dakota native, served as a Navy radar officer in the Pacific during World War II. Long known in civic and political circles by the distinctive moniker “John Y.,” he served as a Douglas County Board member before his election to Congress in 1970.

Nebraska native Hagel, a twice-wounded veteran of Vietnam, graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1971 and was hired by McCollister as a $200-a-month part-timer — but rose to chief of staff.

“He had energy overflowing,” John Y. said. “He had an incredible ability to absorb things as quickly as anybody I’ve ever known.”

Hagel, who was 16 when his father died, said McCollister was such a father figure that the congressman allowed him for a time to live with him and his wife in Potomac, Md., and to stay at their home in Omaha.

“I learned about public service from John Y. McCollister, and how to do it right,” the secretary of defense said Thursday in a phone interview from the Pentagon. “Have the courage to make a decision, but play it straight. He did it with such great dignity and class.”

After three terms and service on the House Commerce Committee, McCollister, a Republican, ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost to Ed Zorinsky, a Democrat and mayor of Omaha.

“It was very, very unfortunate and a loss for our country that John’s political career was cut short,” Hagel said. “I think he was right on the cusp of becoming a very important national leader.”

After that election, Hagel eventually established a successful cellphone business, served as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration and became CEO of the USO. In 1992 he returned to Nebraska and laid the groundwork for a Republican run for the U.S. Senate.

On election night in 1996, two decades after his own loss in a Senate race, a smiling McCollister took the microphone, his voice rising: “May I introduce Senator-elect … Charles Timothy Hagel!”

Years passed, 9/11 happened and America entered into a controversial war. Hagel became Bush’s harshest GOP critic on Iraq.

Then came the break with the man who had given him his start in politics.

Without actually calling for presidential impeachment, Hagel twice in 2007 referred to the possibility. That, followed by Hagel’s vote to withdraw troops from Iraq by March 2008, led McCollister to write a critical letter to The World-Herald’s Public Pulse.

Some, he wrote, disregard the consequences of a premature withdrawal, and others hate Bush. Without naming Hagel, McCollister added: “Those who carelessly throw out talk of ‘impeachment’ are of the same stripe.”

Hagel didn’t seek election to a third term in 2008. He served on boards, taught at Georgetown and became co-chairman of President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. In February, after much controversy, the Senate confirmed him for a Cabinet position.

Late last month he made his first trip to the Omaha area as defense secretary. He visited the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base as well as his alma mater, UNO.

A year earlier, Hagel had sent a gift on McCollister’s June 10 birthday and said he would love to get together. Then came the elder statesman’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.

McCollister’s son, Steve, greeted the secretary’s caravan.

“There were two big, black Suburbans and police cars on either end,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”

Hagel and his wife, Lilibet, were scheduled to spend a half-hour with McCollister and his wife, Betty. The meeting exceeded an hour and a half.

“We talked about old times and the world and all the things that for many years we used to talk about,” Hagel said. “We laughed and talked about episodes and really went back to the joyous times we shared.”

McCollister has esophageal and liver cancer, and underwent nine months of chemotherapy at the Nebraska Medical Center. Knowing from the time of diagnosis that he couldn’t be cured, he hoped the treatments would prolong life — but recently decided the pain and discomfort were no longer worth it.

“We knew this was going to be the end,” he said. “You look at it a little differently at 92 than at 75 or less.”

Last week he signed up for hospice care at home through the Visiting Nurse Association. He has been given about six months to live.

“I’ve had an incredibly fortunate life,” he said. “I’d change a few things, but not very many. I’ve had two wonderful wives, and great kids.”

He was married for 64 years to Nanette, who died in 2008. In 2009 he married Betty, widowed after 58 years of marriage. (John and Betty had been high school sweethearts in South Dakota but went to different colleges, and time and distance intervened.)

John Yetter McCollister said he is relieved to be off chemotherapy and hopes for a good quality of life in his remaining time.

“I believe God determines our destiny,” he said. “We egotistically think it’s our own wisdom. ... There have been so many good people, and so many good things happened. I look back on it as a treasure chest filled.”

His political godson, who rose to a Senate seat that John Y. had sought, and then to the president’s Cabinet, said his mentor had been a smart, balanced and complete public servant.

Said Hagel: “Boy, I wish we had more of that kind of service today.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly

mike.kelly@owh.com    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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