Irish America Hall of Fame: Jean Kennedy Smith
Activist, humanitarian, diplomat.
Often referred to as the shy Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith has quietly blazed her own trail while still holding true to the family legacy of public service. The last of the Kennedy siblings still living, Kennedy Smith has devoted her life to advocating for the disabled and working towards peace in Northern Ireland.
Jean Ann Kennedy was born on February 20, 1928 in Brookline, MA, the eighth of the nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Her siblings were Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944), John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005), Kathleen Agnes Kennedy (1920-1948), Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), Patricia Helen Kennedy Lawford (1924-2006), Robert Frances Kennedy (1925-1968) and Edward Moore Kennedy (1932-2009). She was educated at a variety of Sacred Heart schools, both in the United States and England, where her father served as the US Ambassador from 1938 to 1940.
During World War II, Smith’s eldest brothers, Joseph and John, served in the Navy as an aviator and PT boat commander, respectively. After Joseph’s death in 1944 during a flight mission, she was chosen to christen the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a Navy destroyer named after her brother. In 1948, her older sister Kathleen was killed in a plane crash.
Jean attended Manhattanville College, at the time a Sacred Heart school and the alma mater of both her mother Rose and sister Eunice, graduating with a degree in English in 1949. While there she met and became friends with her future sister-in-law, Ethel Skakel, who married Bobby Kennedy in 1950.
On May 19, 1956, she married Stephen Edward Smith in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where the couple eventually settled. The Smiths had four children: Stephen Edward Jr. in 1957, William Kennedy in 1960, Amanda Mary in 1967 (adopted) and Kym Maria in 1972 (adopted from Vietnam). They remained married until Stephen’s death from lung cancer in 1990.
On the Campaign Trail
In addition to their legacy of public service, the Kennedys are known as being a close family who work together – the most well-known example is probably Robert Kennedy’s term as Attorney General during JFK’s presidency. Jean worked on her brother John’s political campaigns, starting with his 1946 Congressional run for office. In 1960, with the rest of the family, she traveled across the country: going door to door, talking to voters, answering their questions and gathering support for her brother’s campaign. In September, she left the campaign trail – her second child was due and born later that month. Two months later, JFK was elected president by one of the slimmest margins in history. In telling her campaign trail stories, Kennedy Smith recently recalled being asked to lend Jacqueline Kennedy a maternity coat for the official announcement that Kennedy had been elected president.
Her brother’s presidency would have a great impact on her life. Kennedy Smith, as well as her sister Eunice, traveled with JFK when he made his historic trip to Ireland in 1963. Together the three siblings visited Dunganstown in County Wexford, the place their great-grandfather came from. Later that year, President Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.
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