August 26th, 2009
03:45 PM ET

Memories from Kennedy Country

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/26/art.kenhist2.jpg]

Jack Gray
AC360° Producer/Writer

In a way, I now realize, I have always subconsciously considered Ted Kennedy to be immortal. I remember the first time I saw him in person. It was the summer of 1994 and I was at the Yankee Homecoming Parade in Newburyport, Massachusetts, a few miles from where I grew up.

The senator was at the time locked in a tough re-election bid against a little-known businessman named Mitt Romney. From my perch on the sidewalk I heard the crowd down the street start to cheer. And then I saw him. The famous face, the wavy hair, the stylish polo shirt. And then I heard the voice – that inimitable sound.

He bounded down the street with his beautiful new wife Vicki in tow, shaking hands and greeting the crowds in that uniquely Kennedy way. For a teenage news junkie like me, shaking the hand of the man whom I had read about and watched on television for my entire life was a thrill beyond words. He was one of the original political rock stars.

I would come to meet Senator Kennedy a half dozen or so times in the years between then and now, some because of my former job as a television news producer in Boston, others by chance. There was the time I was walking through Boston’s Back Bay with my mother and sister and we came upon the senator standing alone on the sidewalk outside his townhouse, soaking up the sun, waiting for his wife to join him.

He was, as always, incredibly gracious when we stopped to talk with him for a few minutes. He and Vicki were headed, he said, to one of his nephews’ soccer games. For the lone surviving son of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, family always came first. He would often arrive at interviews with a super-sized Kennedy entourage: his wife, his in-laws, his nephews, even his two Portuguese Water Dogs, Sunny and Splash.

For Massachusetts and the nation, he was a constant – there in the good times and the bad. My friend and mentor, the veteran Boston television anchor Chet Curtis, vividly recalls the moment in 1963 when as a young reporter in the Senate gallery he witnessed a staffer rush to Kennedy’s side and say, “Senator, your brother the president has been shot.” Three days later my grandparents and parents watched from Massachusetts as he marched behind his brother’s casket in Washington.

Five years after that they hung on every word as he eulogized his other brother in New York. And in 1980 the country watched as he unsuccessfully challenged President Carter for the Democratic nomination – a challenge that culminated with Kennedy’s stirring “Dream Shall Never Die” convention speech.

The Kennedys may belong to the nation, but Massachusetts natives have always felt that we have first dibs. The family that has been a fixture on the national landscape has been even more of a fixture on our local landscape – Senator Kennedy chief among them. We watched as he sailed with Jackie Onassis and her children on Nantucket Sound. We knew each year he would make a special appearance with his aging mother on the Hyannisport porch to celebrate her birthday. We saw him climb into a waiting Coast Guard helicopter when his nephew, John F. Kennedy, Jr., went missing in 1999.

We got chills, as a fellow intern and I admitted to each other in the summer of 2000, when he walked onto the Democratic National Convention stage to the Orleans hit, “You’re Still the One.” And perhaps my fondest personal memory: handing him a big piece of cake decorated with an American flag when he celebrated his 74th birthday.

The last time I saw Senator Kennedy in person was at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. Though weakened by his illness, he nevertheless brought the house down. It was a moment I will never forget.

Ted Kennedy was, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea… or chowder, as he would probably prefer it be described. Indeed, he had his flaws. But even his harshest critics will acknowledge he was a tireless and effective senator for the people of Massachusetts.

Perhaps to no issue was he more dedicated than health care. Today Massachusetts is reeling from the news that Ted Kennedy’s fight for health care has come to an end.

Follow Jack Gray on Twitter @JackGrayCNN.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Jack Gray • Sen. Ted Kennedy
soundoff (66 Responses)

    I m sure Sen Kennedy will see health care he support getting to all in haven even if us here we use Republicans to stop it for our interest I wish we did listen to SEN Kennedy RIP we all love you

    August 26, 2009 at 11:55 pm |

    Anderson please I would like to see again Teddy Kennedy in his on word . Thanks.Would you please tell me where in Houston I can take roses to remember Teddy Kennedy . Thank We love you Teddy

    August 26, 2009 at 11:38 pm |

    RIP TEEDY You was a man who stand up for us My haven father Jehovah will keep you with all who was not white,black or others my GOD bless your family. we always love you

    August 26, 2009 at 11:26 pm |
  4. Tikiri de Zoysa-Falk

    “Teddy” – as the name evokes – what a comfort and friend you have been to millions… The name Kennedy has been synonymous with politics for over half a century… for valor… for power… for daring… for acumen… for debonair flair… for visionary thinking… for fearlessness and for so much more. Ted Kennedy embodies one of the greatest gifts the Kennedy’s have given: selfless public service… in the spirit of the true “Public Servant”… Ted Kennedy fought, not for what he would benefit from, but for what multi-millions were deprived of – dignity and healthcare, above all. Yes, Ted, who could have languished in his billionaire family heritage, didn’t give into an expedient lifestyle… but fought valiantly, for the short-changed millions : the nations heart overflows with love and gratitude… what a celebration of life yours proved to be – Ted. May inspiration flow into the hearts and minds of one and all.

    August 26, 2009 at 11:16 pm |
  5. Shepherd

    R.I.P Teddy, what an extraordinary life lived. I think he came full circle and had his redemption. I always looked forward to hearing him speak, I also could hear the similiarities with his brothers voice. Imagine the conversations they are all having in the great Kennedy compound in the sky!

    August 26, 2009 at 10:36 pm |
  6. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    @Mari, a persons true character shows when faced with a life or death decision. Ted Kennedy had that moment at Chappaquidick. He let a young woman drown rather than risk his reputation save her. True that only God can decide whether his good works since have balanced the scales. But to me Ted Kennedy will always be the senator who got away with negligent homicide.

    August 26, 2009 at 9:08 pm |
  7. Angie-Toronto, Canada

    Jack that was a lovely piece. Thank you for sharing your remarkable experiences. I agree with Jan you should write your memoir and I will be right behind her!!
    My condolences to the Kennedy family.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:48 pm |
  8. Jan

    Maybe it's a generational thing, but I can't cannonize Ted Kennedy like others have. I acknowledge that Kennedy has contributed to several major pieces of legislature, but that was his job. Where was he in supporting health care reform in 1993? The "lion" remained notably silent back then.

    The Kennedy family had many flaws. In 1991 Newsweek described Ted Kennedy as "The living symbol of family flaws." He drank too much and was very much a womanizer. I fail to understand how all those things can now be forgotten.

    Ted Kennedy is far from being a saint, hero, or legend. It's tiresome hearing the media's hero worship of this man. I guess honesty is a subjective thing.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:33 pm |
  9. Larry

    @Mari Never said I was judging him, just glad to see her get some kind of closure on a 40 year cover-up.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:27 pm |
  10. @JudyMcCord - Scottsdale, AZ

    Wow, so beautifully written! I worked on the Hill during the Reagan Administration and remember how large Senator Kennedy's presence was when he entered a room. I can only imagine being at the 2008 Democratic Convention but I will tell you I sat on my couch and cried like a baby when he spoke. Great piece you have written Jack Gray.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:26 pm |
  11. Helen, Reading, UK

    Lovely blog as always, Jack. I guess the Kennedys to you guys would be almost equivalent to our Royal Family. Condolences to all of you from the UK.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:24 pm |
  12. BHO - fan

    @ lampe,

    GOD HEALS ALL . . . IF YOU LET HIM. . .It's OUR FREE WILL to carry GUILT, HURT AND PAIN for the rest of our lives. OR, we can GIVE IT TO HIM ( god ) And Rest.

    August 26, 2009 at 8:07 pm |
  13. Mari

    No one ever said that Ted Kennedy was perfect nor a saint. He was a sinner..... like the rest of us!

    @ Larry....... Mary Jo has been resting in peace. Ted Kennedy will be judged by His God, not you! Shame on you.

    May you rest in peace, Sen. Kennedy! Thank you for over 40 years of service to our nation.

    August 26, 2009 at 7:57 pm |
  14. Lori, IL

    Great post, Jack - Thanks for sharing. To think I remember the day Jack died, the day Bobby died and now the day Teddy died - how sad.
    What I think I admire about Teddy the most that was despite his wealth and power, he always related to and fought for the common man and those less fortunate. His legislative accomplishments are many and let's hope congress picks up his fight for health care and passes the Ted M. Kennedy Health Care Bill (complete with the public option he so desparately wanted.) R.I.P. Teddy -

    August 26, 2009 at 7:40 pm |
  15. Phyllis

    I don't think Camelot is dead because the Kennedy's live on and I'm sure that there is at least one member of the clan that will step up and take Teddy's place within the family. And that is what their Camelot has always been about Family first and always. The lesson I have learned from the Kennedys is that all families have the good, the bad, and the ugly in them; but love and forgiveness are the things that will hold a family together through it all. A lesson I hope we all try and take forward with us in our memories of this public service minded family. My prays are with them all in their hour of need and I take peace in knowing that all the brothers are together again and hope their playing a game of football up in heaven.

    August 26, 2009 at 7:22 pm |
  16. Deirdre M

    I enjoyed this piece very much. I, too, will miss Ted. He championed most of the movements and issues dear to me.

    August 26, 2009 at 7:03 pm |
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