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In Memoriam | Fall 2021

In Memoriam: John W. Warner

Longtime U.S. senator made a name in political, military and social circles

His law school career interrupted by the Korean War, John Warner (Law ’53) returned to UVA in 1951 to resume his studies. Picking up where he’d left off proved to be no easy task, however.

John W. Warner Library of Congress

“It was a bit of a challenge to get my mind oriented toward the life of a student after having served in Korea,” Warner, the former five-term U.S. senator who died May 25 at age 94, told UVA Lawyer magazine in 2009. “Had it not been for the faculty’s warmth and interest in me, particularly Dean (F.W.G) Ribble (Col 1917, Law 1921), I wouldn’t be here as a senator today.”

Warner’s tenure was the second-longest of any senator from Virginia. A Republican, he was known for his expertise on military affairs, but also for his willingness to buck the party establishment if he believed it was in Virginia’s and the nation’s interest.

“In his commitment to finding common ground with those with whom he disagreed, and in his dedication to the success of our nation, he was a model to us all,” President James E. Ryan (Law ’92) said.

Raised in Washington, D.C., Warner enlisted in the U.S. Navy at age 17. Discharged at the end of World War II, he earned a degree in engineering from Washington & Lee University in 1949.

Warner enrolled at UVA Law School but left to serve as a ground officer with the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in Korea. After graduation, he worked as a federal law clerk, an assistant U.S. attorney and in private practice.

Warner’s entry into politics came in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968. He was appointed undersecretary and then secretary of the Navy under Nixon and served as head of the American Revolution Bicentennial Celebration.

Divorced from his first wife, banking heir Catherine Mellon, Warner entered the public eye when he married actress Elizabeth Taylor in 1976. With Taylor accompanying him on campaign stops across the Commonwealth, Warner won his Senate seat in 1978. 

Warner defeated Democrat Andrew P. Miller (Law ’60) by a mere 4,700 votes, the closest Senate race in Virginia history, according to the Washington Post.

Taylor and the square-jawed, debonair Warner made a glamorous couple before their marriage ended in divorce in 1982. Warner, who had been dismissed in some circles as a wealthy dilettante and celebrity husband, by then had established his own identity as a serious, diligent politician.

Warner chaired the Armed Services Committee from 1999 to 2001 and again from 2003 to 2007. Valued for his knowledge, independence and personal touch, he was widely respected by members of both parties.

Warner retired from the Senate in 2009 and returned to the same firm where he had practiced law before becoming undersecretary of the Navy 40 years earlier. A Virginia-class submarine named in his honor was commissioned in 2013.

Warner is survived by his wife, Jeanne Vander Myde Warner, and children John William Warner IV (Col ’85), Virginia Warner and Mary W. Conover.

—Ed Miller