Former Rep. John Y. McCollister, who defeated a sitting congressman to win office and later gave Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel his first Washington job, died Friday at age 92.
John S. McCollister said his father died at an Omaha hospice, surrounded by family, after a battle with cancer. McCollister, a Republican, was a three-term congressman in Omaha's 2nd congressional district, serving from 1971 to 1977.
"After 92 years, he's had a good life, and we want to celebrate it," the younger McCollister said. "The great number of people he mentored is remarkable. He had so many close friends, and was very heartfelt in his political beliefs."
The plain-spoken McCollister handed Rep. Glen Cunningham the only electoral defeat of his career when McCollister won the Republican nomination in 1971. Cunningham had served seven terms before McCollister beat him in the general election.
McCollister hired Hagel as an aide while he was in Congress. Hagel, who later became a U.S. senator, credited McCollister with shaping many of his views and practices. During a March 2007 news conference, he called McCollister the finest public servant he had ever known.
"I will always be indebted to him for placing his trust and confidence in me, and for his continued friendship and advice over the years," Hagel said in a statement Friday. "The people of Nebraska have lost a great leader, and John Y. will be greatly missed by everyone whose life he changed."
The congressman served three terms in the House before deciding to run for the U.S. Senate in 1976. Omaha Mayor Ed Zorinsky switched to the Democratic party and beat McCollister in the general election.
McCollister never ran for another elected office, but he continued serving the community by helping organizations such as the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He was born in Iowa City, Iowa, graduated from the University of Iowa and joined the Navy to serve in World War II.
"Congressman McCollister was an outstanding Congressman and represented Nebraska with distinction," Gov. Dave Heineman said in a statement. "He was a World War II veteran, a dedicated civil servant, a respected business leader, and he was a good friend. He will be missed and our thoughts and prayers are with his family."
U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer said McCollister, an early co-chair of her campaign, provided her with counsel and insight due to his service in Washington and Nebraska.
"Today, Nebraska lost a principled fighter, our state Republican party lost a great leader, and I lost a dear friend," Fischer said.