By Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz
I was no intimate of Ted Kennedy’s. I had the privilege of being in his company perhaps a dozen times, including the night John Jr. died, but many people were far closer to him than I. A dozen times was more than enough, however, for me to recognize that, quite apart from all that he gave to his country in the public realm, Ted Kennedy—“Uncle Teddy,” as his family knew him—was a very special human being.
He was, for example, extraordinarily funny. On the wall in his Senate office, he kept a framed letter from one of his sisters to his father during the years Joe Sr. was ambassador to the Court of St. James in London and Teddy was perhaps six. “Tell Teddy he must lose weight,” the letter read. Pointing out that letter to my wife, Beth, and me, Ted said, “Some things never change!” The last time I saw him, at a private fundraising breakfast a year and a half ago, shortly before his diagnosis, he spent the first ten minutes telling classic jokes about “Paddy,” the quintessential Irishman.
More than funny, however, Edward M. Kennedy was sentimental. (CBS reporter) Gloria Borger interviewed him at Hyannis Port several years ago for 60 Minutes. The subject was to be not his Senate career or political issues, but his role as the family patriarch, a highly personal exploration about “the last surviving brother.” “I’m not sure I can do it, Bill,” he told me. “I’m afraid I will cry.” “I’m sure you will cry, Ted,” I said, “and nothing will endear you more to the people who watch.” He did the interview; he did cry; and it was one of the most touching presentations of him I had ever seen.
Most importantly, though, Ted Kennedy was just plain sweet. Deeply, wrenchingly, authentically sweet. No matter how busy he was, he managed to telephone every one of his dozens of nieces, nephews, grand-nieces and grand-nephews on their birthdays. Forrest Church recalls that, during the days his own father, then ex-Senator Frank Church, was hospitalized with terminal cancer in Bethesda, Md., it was Ted Kennedy who arranged almost every day to free himself from his Senate duties and make the journey to his bedside. When my first book was published by Beacon Press, we held a release event at the Kennedy Library, and with no advance notice or warning, Ted showed up to speak a word of praise. None of these gestures brought him the slightest political advantage but each one of them disclosed what a precious individual he was. That is no doubt why he was loved so deeply by senators—and people—on both sides of the political aisle.
Someone once remarked to me that with Ted Kennedy in the Senate, you always felt as if the less powerful people in the world had at least one champion, one defender, looking out for them in the halls of power. That champion is gone now and for that we surely mourn. But what is also gone and at least as much worth mourning was that funny, sentimental, sweet, sweet human being who graced the lives of those who journeyed with him and “left the vivid air signed with his honor.”
William F. Schulz was president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) from 1985-93.