One of John McCain's colleagues recalls the late senator's tenacity in this week's PEOPLE cover story, following the 81-year-old's death

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August 28, 2018 11:30 AM

John McCain‘s reputation as a maverick came naturally to him.

“[He was] a dogged ‘ole SOB, sharp as hell and tougher than a $2 steak,” remembers former Rep. John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, in this week’s PEOPLE cover story.

McCain died at 81 on Saturday, just one day after his family announced that “with his usual strength of will,” he had decided to stop treatment for the stage-four brain cancer he had been diagnosed with last summer.

The battle was just one of many for the late politician, who defended his country first as a war hero, and then as a representative for Arizona in the U.S. House, before eventually serving 31 years in the Senate.

Dingell, now 92, tells PEOPLE McCain turned heads from his first day on the floor of the House, back in 1983. “I saw a slighter, smaller-than-medium guy with white hair and I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’ ” he says.

McCain was used to standing out and causing trouble, though it wasn’t always for the right reasons.

RELATED: From POW to Political Powerhouse: Sen. John McCain’s Life Through the Years

John McCain
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

RELATED: Sen. John McCain, Former POW, Opened Up to PEOPLE About His Faith in God and His Country

The son and grandson of two four-star U.S. Navy admirals, McCain was a troublemaker at the Naval Academy, running with a group who called themselves the Bad Bunch.

He graduated in 1958 near the bottom of his class, placing 894th among 899 midshipmen — but his steadfast will and natural leadership helped him become a lieutenant commander in the Vietnam War by the age of 30.

John McCain in 1967
AFP/Getty

And that same tenacity helped McCain survive the 5½ years he was held and tortured as a prisoner by the North Vietnamese, after his A-4 Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi on Oct. 26, 1967.

McCain would equally apply those principles to his work in government, even in the final months of his life when he publicly took a stand against President Trump by casting the deciding vote to save the Affordable Healthcare Act. 

“He was a man of his own opinion, not led by polls or focus groups or party leaders,” Dr. Hal Kushner, a former Army flight surgeon and fellow POW during the Vietnam War alongside McCain, tells PEOPLE in the cover story.

For more on the legacy of Sen. John McCain, pick up this weeks issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.

After McCain’s death, his family paid tribute online, with his wife Cindy McCain, 64, tweeting, “My heart is broken.”

“I am so lucky to have lived the adventure of loving this incredible man for 38 years,” she continued. “He passed the way he lived, on his own terms, surrounded by the people he loved, in the place he loved best.”

Daughter Meghan McCain, one of his eight children, also paid her respects to her father online.

“In the thirty-three years we shared together, he raised me, taught me, corrected me, comforted me, encouraged me, and supported me in all things,” she wrote in part. “He taught me how to live. His love and his care, ever present, always unfailing, took me from a girl to a woman — and he showed me what it is to be a man.”

All that I am is thanks to him,” Meghan added. “Now that he is gone, the task of my lifetime is to live up to his example, his expectations, and his love.”

  • Reporting by DIANE HERBST and SUSAN KEATING

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