It was his handshake I’ll never forget, solid and strong. The event was an Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR) rally in Washington D.C. in March 2006.
Although I was slightly intimidated by the enormity of the situation and those all around me, I was somewhat comforted by the presence of Senator Ted Kennedy and his vivacious handshake.
It may have been a fleeting moment but one that I will never forget.
“Hello,” said Kennedy, as he shook my hand and smiled.
“Hello Senator, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” I replied, or something along those cordial lines.
This snapshot moment took place in the conference room the hotel in Washington on March 7, 2006.
Prior to my reporting days I was a sign language interpreter, and it certainly was advantageous that March when ILIR needed someone to interpret at a rally for three deaf Irish undocumented immigrants who had traveled to Washington to hear from the politicians on the ground.
Kennedy was the leader of the pack that cold March afternoon, and he was wonderful.
Not only had I the privilege of meeting the senator face to face, I had the pleasure of sharing space on stage with him.
During my short-lived career as an interpreter in Ireland I had interpreted speeches for many dignitaries, including Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, at the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics in Dublin in 2002, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d meet, let alone have the pleasure of interpreting the words, of Senator Kennedy. It was a day I’ll never forget.
Although that day I shared the stage with many high profile politicians including Senator John McCain and Senator and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it was the Lion that stood out to me.
As he made his way onto the stage he took the time to shake my hand, smile graciously and say hello. He had no idea who I was, but he must have known that a handshake from him meant the world to this Kerry woman.
As I proudly stood before 3,000 undocumented Irish and their supporters I let the words of Senator Kennedy flow from my hands.
“Yes, we can,” he roared while referring to the potential enactment of comprehensive immigration reform later that year.
“We will not give up until we get this passed,” he continued.
He gave hope and joy to the 3,000 undocumented sitting before him that day. He gave me the chills. He wasn’t just a politician that day, he was a humanitarian and a friend to the Irish. I was blown away.
A year later, I again had the pleasure of meeting the senator, this time wearing my reporter’s hat. Then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern was visiting the capital for his annual St. Patrick’s Day visit. I was invited along as a member of the press to document the visit.
In one of the small rooms off the halls of Congress nearly 20 reporters gathered to witness a brief meeting between Ahern and Kennedy.
Three questions were allowed.
I was lucky enough to have my voice heard over the others. Mine was to the senator.
Kennedy smiled at me gently as I asked him if he thought immigration reform would be possible in the future. It had, after all, failed the year before.
He answered, “Most definitely.”
He added, “It will take a lot of hard work but the right thing would be done in the end.”
He firmly believed what he was saying that day and the day in Jury’s hotel.
After the interviews were over and done with that afternoon, I happened to be side by side with the senator. I gently rubbed his arm and said, “You’re doing a great job.”
I couldn’t let the opportunity slip me by. He smiled down at me, nodded and said “Thank you.”
EXECUTIVE director of ILIR Kelly Fincham met with Senator Kennedy on many occasions to discuss the issues facing the Irish undocumented in the U.S.
Kennedy always responded empathically and with a promise to get the issue fixed.
Fincham’s most memorable encounter with the senator was only two weeks before he suffered his first collapse.
Kennedy, attending a buffet at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in April 2008, asked Fincham for a chair.
“The speaker was hosting a luncheon in honor of outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern -- who had just addressed the joint session of Congress -- and the room was stuffed with Irish American big wigs,” recalls Fincham.
“The lion amongst them all was Kennedy. But he looked grey in the face, and was clearly in some distress.
“’I need a chair,’ he said, to no one in particular. Spying me looking at him, he said, ‘Would you mind bringing me a chair?’ I cast around wildly and grabbed a spare chair before a well-endowed Irish American Hyacinth Bucket type could take it from under me,” said Fincham.
“’I'm saving it for someone,” she said snootily.
“’Well it better be for Senator Edward Kennedy or else I'm taking it,’ I said. In as dignified manner as possible, I wrestled the chair away from her and brought it back to the senator.”