I only met Ted Kennedy once, many years ago. I was working with parents whose children had been stricken with leukemia in Woburn, Massachusetts. We were trying to answer the simplest of questions: why their children? These were wonderful and extraordinary people, supported by their local minister, himself an ordinary extraordinary man. They were a handful of ordinary citizens, not a huge voting bloc and they were extremely respectful but determined. Their inquiries were turning up facts that were inconvenient for some of the state’s most powerful economic interests. But Ted Kennedy asked them to testify before his committee about what they were finding that might have caused their tragedy. I was asked to come along to give the science side.
After the hearing, itself a draining emotional experience for these parents whose children were dead or dying, the Senator invited us to be his guest in the Senate dining room for lunch. He had other commitments so he didn’t eat with us, but he didn’t send his staff to do the logistics, either. He personally saw us all to our places in the dining room and thanked us for our testimonies, which for some was extraordinarily painful. It was long ago and all I can remember was Ted Kennedy’s warmth and generosity and total lack of affectation. If you’ve been watching the media coverage of his death, this will be a familiar theme. I can tell you from personal experience, it is a genuine one.
I also know from the media accounts that Ted Kennedy was a deeply religious person, a devout and routinely observant Roman Catholic. I know this from media accounts. It was never part of his political persona. His religion was personal and private, although no less deeply felt for that. As an atheist I don’t understand it, but I respect the way he wore his faith. His older brother, John, had made it a matter of principle and point of personal honor to keep his religion and his role as public servant separate, and his younger brothers Bobby and Ted followed suit. I never heard him invoke God or religion for political reasons. Or for any public reasons, for that matter. The difference in our religious views — which was vast — was never a barrier.
The night before his burial there was a celebration of his life and works at the Kennedy Library. It ended with a song, When Irish Eyes are Smiling. No religion. No prayers. Just an expression of joyousness that all felt would have given the Senator pleasure. So on this weekend of his funeral, the Reveres would like to end the Sermonette with a song in his honor as well. Two years ago, also in the month of August, the world of Irish music lost one of its greatest practitioners, Tommy Makem. But his songs and his performances are still with us, and after hours of searching we settled on this: