Irish America Hall of Fame: Jean Kennedy Smith


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.

Early Life
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.

Five years later, Sen. Robert Kennedy was running for president, and Kennedy Smith and her husband helped to run the campaign. They were at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Bobby was assassinated there.

Advocate for the Disabled
In 1964, Kennedy Smith was named a trustee of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in her brother’s memory and currently devoted to improving the lives of the intellectually disabled. That same year, she was named to the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a position she has been named to by every President since. In 1974, Kennedy Smith founded Very Special Arts, now known as VSA. Associated with the Kennedy Center, the organization is devoted to creating “a society where people with disabilities learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts.” VSA is an international organization, working with 52 international affiliates as well as a network of affiliates in  the Unites States. A major influence and motivation in Kennedy Smith’s work with the disabled was her older sister Rosemary, who was developmentally disabled from birth.

Ambassador to Ireland
In 1993, President Bill Clinton ap-pointed Kennedy Smith the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. It was a thrilling honor and achievement for many reasons – particularly because it granted her a direct, active role in politics and made her and her father, Joseph Sr., the first father and daughter to serve as U.S. ambassadors. Additionally, as she stated in a previous interview with Irish America, “Next to President of the United States, Ambassador to Ireland is surely one of the best jobs an Irish American can hold.”
Kennedy Smith was appointed ambassador at a crucial moment in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Fighting and conflict had been frequent, but signs of change were apparent. In September 1993, John Hume and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement outlining the Hume/Adams Initiative, the goal of which was the creation of a peace process. Crucially, the IRA welcomed the initiative. The next important step would be the issuing of a U.S. visa to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. Kennedy Smith would play a crucial role in this task.