Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Friday praised his early mentor, John Y. McCollister, as “a wise, balanced and complete leader, and one of the finest public servants I have ever known.”
Long known in civic and political circles by the distinctive moniker “John Y.,” the three-term Republican congressman from Omaha and a Navy veteran of World War II died Friday morning at 92.
“John Y. led a long and fulfilling life that embodied the spirit and values of the greatest generation,” Hagel said in a statement released by the Pentagon. He added: “I was honored that he gave me the opportunity to serve on his congressional staff in the 1970s."
In an email to friends two weeks ago, McCollister wrote: “God has blessed me with a great life, a wonderful family and an abundance of great friends. I have a great deal to be thankful for.”
McCollister, who served in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977, also served on numerous civic boards, from Boy Scouts to schools to Kiwanis and United Way, and led the family-owned McCollister & Co., which manufactured lubricants. It was sold in 2006.
“He died peacefully,” said son Steve McCollister. “We all had the opportunity to say our goodbyes, and he seemed to be at peace. Dad had a remarkable life.”
John Yetter McCollister was born June 10, 1921, in Iowa City and graduated from high school in Sioux Falls, S.D. He ran track and cross country and was the business college's class president at the University of Iowa, where he graduated in 1943.
He served as a radar officer on the USS Birmingham, which endured a Japanese kamikaze strike on May 4, 1945. McCollister was not hurt, but 51 crewmates were killed and 81 were injured.
After working in sales for IBM in Illinois and Iowa, he moved to Omaha in 1953 to join his father in the family business. John Y. was elected to the Douglas County Board, serving from 1965 to 1971, when he defeated seven-term incumbent Glenn Cunningham in the GOP primary for Congress and then won the general election.
McCollister soon hired Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, and gave him his first job in Washington, D.C. Hagel rose to become his chief aide.
John Y. ran for the U.S. Senate in 1976, losing to Omaha Mayor Edward Zorinsky.
Twenty years later, the former congressman enthusiastically introduced his political godson for Hagel's victory speech upon election to the Senate.
Hagel long has called McCollister a father figure, but they had a falling out in 2007 over the senator's criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War. That rift was healed on June 19, when Hagel and his wife visited McCollister and his wife for an hour and a half at the McCollisters' home in Omaha.
“I learned about public service from John Y. McCollister, and how to do it right,” Hagel said then. “Have the courage to make a decision, but play it straight. He did it with such great dignity and class.”
McCollister and his first wife, Nanette, had three sons, John S., Steve and Bruce. After 64 years of marriage, she died in 2008.
In 2009, McCollister married Betty, who had been widowed after 58 years. In the 1930s, they had been high school sweethearts in South Dakota.
McCollister eventually was diagnosed with esophageal and liver cancer and had nine months of chemotherapy, but decided to end treatments. A funeral is set for 10:30 a.m. Nov. 8 at Dundee Presbyterian Church.
Steve McCollister said his father was sensitive, looked after his family “and always talked to us about being gentlemen, responsible and involved in our communities, which all three of us (brothers) have been.”
John Y. maintained a sense of humor to the end. Days before entering the Josie Harper Hospice House, he wrote that he knew it wouldn't be his home address for very long.
“The Hospice House is temporary,” he wrote, “and the next one will be much more permanent. We're not sure of email accessibility at the subsequent permanent address.”