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Updated 8/27 at 1:30 a.m.
Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy '54-'56, the "Lion of the Senate" and the last remaining son of the prominent Democratic political family, passed away Tuesday night at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. after a year-long battle with brain cancer. He was 77.
A Government concentrator and Winthrop House resident in his undergrad years, Kennedy was elected to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1962. He was senate majority whip from 1969 to 1971. Kennedy had been reelected seven times, making him the second-longest serving member of the Senate at the time of his death.
After a seizure in May 2008, he was diagnosed with a malignant glioma, a type of brain tumor that can carry a bleak prognosis. He underwent cancer treatment over the course of the year.
In the Senate, Kennedy developed a reputation as a leader on social policy issues, championing reforms in areas such as health care, education, and immigration, as well as leading multiple committees, including, most recently, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Though he was one of the dominant liberal figures in the Senate, Kennedy was also known for his efforts to reach across party lines to pass legislation—such as his alliance with former President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind legislation.
Throughout his years in office, Kennedy was particularly focused on reforming the nation's health care system, a passion showcased by his return to the U.S. Capitol last summer to vote on a Medicare bill while he was undergoing cancer treatment. Some supporters of health system reform efforts this summer had said they had hoped a viable reform would be ready in time for Kennedy to cast an "aye" vote.
Just last week, Kennedy had asked the state of Massachusetts to reconsider its policy on filling a vacant senate seat, as a way of raising discussion as to how his seat would be filled after his passing. Kennedy asked that the state legislature change the current law preventing Governor Deval L. Patrick '78 from appointing a temporary replacement, in hopes of aiding Democrats' current push to pass health care legislation.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Mass. Senator and former Presidential candidate John F. Kerry after a December ceremony held at Harvard to honor Kennedy. “It’s a privilege to serve with him.”
Edward Moore Kennedy was born February 22, 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, the youngest of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children. Kennedy bounced between schools as a child, ultimately graduating from Milton Academy in 1950. He followed in the footsteps of his father and older brothers by enrolling at Harvard that fall.
At the end of his freshman year, Kennedy was suspended after having another student take a Spanish exam in his place. He spent the next two years serving in the U.S. Army as a military policeman in Paris before re-enrolling at Harvard in the fall of 1953.
Upon returning to campus, he joined the all-male final club the Owl, an association he would disown in 2006 after drawing flak for condemning Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito, Jr. for his one-time membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, an organization that had taken a public stance against affirmative action and co-education at Princeton.
Kennedy was a noted member of Harvard's football team during his college career, scoring the only Harvard touchdown in the Harvard-Yale Game his senior year. He turned down an offer of interest from the Green Bay Packers, instead opting to attend law school at the University of Virginia.
While at the University of Virginia, Kennedy met his first wife, Joan Bennett, whom he married in 1958. The couple had three children—Kara, Edward Jr., and Patrick—before divorcing in 1982. After years of struggles with alcohol and a reputation for womanizing, Kennedy married lawyer Victoria Reggie in 1992. She remained at the senator's side during his future political endeavors and recent illness.
Kennedy's most notable scandal came in 1969 when he drove off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island in Martha's Vineyard, an incident which resulted in the drowning death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. After swimming to safety, Kennedy did not call police until after Kopechne's body was found the following day. The senator pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident, but remained in office and was reelected in 1970.
His 1980 run for the presidency proved unsuccessful, particularly after the Chappaquiddick incident became a major factor in the campaign.
But while he failed to win the office his brother had once held, Kennedy carved out for himself a niche as one of the senate’s most powerful legislators.
After John F. Kennedy’s election left his Massachusetts senate seat empty, the Kennedy family arranged for a family friend to fill the post for the next two years until the youngest Kennedy was eligible to run for the seat.
Though Kennedy's voice came to be respected in foreign policy matters in the course of his tenure--from calling for peace in Northern Ireland to voting against the authorization of the war in Iraq--he was most passionate about setting domestic social policy. Despite being born into a family often referred to as the closest thing to American royalty, Kennedy focused on helping the poor and disenfranchised through many of the 300-plus successful bills he sponsored during his tenure in the Senate.
“When it came to [welfare reform], a fire would come in his eyes and you could see him rise in his chair and fill with passion,” said Kennedy School Dean David T. Ellwood ’75, who worked with Kennedy on welfare reform during the Clinton administration.
Kennedy began focusing his attention on learning about issues such as health care and civil rights during the months he spent recovering from a broken back and rib he suffered during a plane crash in 1964.
His civil rights victories included successfully fighting to protect the Voting Rights Act, increasing the minimum wage in the 1990s, and passing the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, a bill that held personal significance due to his older sister Rosemary's mental disability.
While Kennedy was unable to cast a vote in this summer's health care battle, his career saw other related victories, including the expansion of health insurance coverage for children with the passage of the State Children's Health Insurance Program in 1997.
In the years since his graduation from Harvard, Kennedy remained connected to the University. He was involved in creating the Institute of Politics, which commemorates his brother John F. Kennedy ’40. During his time serving as a member of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, Kennedy almost never missed a meeting and “would light up” when he had the chance to meet with students, said Ellwood.
“We have been privileged and proud to have him as a member of the Harvard family, and I am one of the many, many people who will deeply miss his leadership, his courage, and his friendship,” University President Drew G. Faust said in a statement Wednesday morning.
In December 2008, he was awarded an honorary degree by the University in a special ceremony, as he was unable to attend the June 2008 Commencement exercises due to his illness. The audience included Kerry, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
“I hope that in all the time since then I have lived up to the chance Harvard gave me,” Kennedy said after receiving his honorary doctorate.
At the ceremony, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, a former Harvard Law School professor who served as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee when Kennedy was chair, spoke about what he had learned working with the senator, citing Kennedy’s strong commitments to bipartisanship and helping others.
“I’m proud to be here as Harvard says, ‘Well done, senator, and thank you for caring about so many, so much, for so long,” Breyer said.
The event marked one of the less than a handful of times that Harvard has awarded an honorary degree outside of the June Commencement. Three heads of state—George Washington, Nelson Mandela, and Winston Churchill—are the only people to receive similar awards at special ceremonies.
“Now I have something in common with George Washington, other than being born on February 22,” Kennedy said. “It is not being president as I had once hoped.”
According to political journalist Adam Clymer ’58, who wrote a biography of Kennedy, the senator has been “the most effective legislator of his time.”
“President Faust explained it pretty well at Commencement: he’s been a leader on all kinds of issues, specifically on higher education, which is particularly important to Harvard,” said Clymer,who is a former Crimson president.
According to Ellwood, though Kennedy entered office as part of a political dynasty, his ultimate reputation as an effective, revered legislator came from his passion for the issues he supported and his willingness to work with people on either side of the aisle to transform his ideas into legislation.
“During his early career days he was a Kennedy,” Ellwood said, “but by the end he was the Senator."
— Staff writer Lauren D. Kiel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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