So many words have been shared about Senator Kennedy, whose life and memory we have been honoring over the last few days. So many of drew inspiration from his life, and benefited directly from his efforts.
Twenty years ago this week I started a semester’s internship in Senator Kennedy’s Washington office. Like thousands of others who also had this opportunity, I hit the jackpot. My only credentials as a college student in the Cornell-in-Washington program were being from Massachusetts and having a desire to serve. The daily work included helping staff prepare for Judiciary committee hearings and doing research for constituents who needed help. It was a front row seat to observe the inspired work of the staff and the Senator, himself. Once I was asked to make copies of the final text of a speech the Senator was about to make on the Senate floor in support of the Americans with Disabilities Act-and then I was asked to race a copy of it over to the Senate so he could deliver the speech-soon thereafter he also delivered the result for people with disabilities.
Many years later, while I was with the Anti-Defamation League, I had the chance to meet with the Senator in his Boston office to share our agenda and ask how we could help with his. It was a singular experience in my life in ways anyone would have to understand without explanation. A project did emerge from the conversation. Together, Senator Kennedy, his staff and my ADL colleagues and I crafted a partnership to get President Kennedy’s 1957 essay “A Nation of Immigrants” republished. The date was approaching of the 50th anniversary of the essay President Kennedy wrote while he was a US Senator from Massachusetts at the request of the man who was then the head of ADL in Boston. The cause then was immigration reform. Senator Ted Kennedy agreed to write the introduction to the new edition to advance the latest chapter in the same struggle. Several months later, I had the privilege to meet Senator Kennedy at the curb when his car pulled up to Washington’s Mayflower Hotel for an ADL conference. He was there to announce the re-introduction of his brother’s book and issue a call to action. I walked with Senator Kennedy down the elegant, carpeted hallway of one of DC’s most majestic hotels. He talked with me easily along the way, only about the substance of immigration reform which he was consumed with at the time. He seemed genuinely excited about the re-issuance of the book he had been quoting from throughout the 50 years since it had been originally published. Cameras flashed and snapped as he reached the end of the corridor and entered the back of a full ballroom. We stood in the shadows for an instant until he got his bearings and then without waiting for direction from anyone, he walked through the tables and straight up to the stage. The event sprung from a work of the distant past. But clearly his agenda was not nostalgia. From my internship in 1989 to this moment at the Mayflower Hotel in 2007, I always observed him to invoke his brothers’ names only to inspire action on something urgent and difficult that extended their legacy.
Six months later, I got a message on my answering machine at home from Senator Kennedy—thanking me for the effort ADL had made to support hate crimes legislation which had just passed the Senate. I relayed his thanks to my colleagues in Washington. But I listened to that voicemail 20 times, in awe that my Senator, Ted Kennedy no less, would make such a call of thanks when he was the one who deserved the thank you.
I have had to work on my resume a couple of times recently. One always has to update, edit and make the strongest case you can for the jobs you want. Long ago as it was, I never even think about removing the line where it says “Intern, Office of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 1989.” And not just because it is a badge of tremendous honor; also because it is still the one thing more people want to talk about in an interview. The opportunity and inspiration Senator Kennedy provided for me continues to animate and inspire my choices. May his memory be for a blessing.