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.
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.”
Kennedy sat down on the chair Fincham had retrieved for him.
“To my horror, he looked as if he was going to pass out,” remembers Fincham.
She held his hand and asked him could she could get him anything.
“A glass of water with some lemon,” was the reply.
“Ignoring the well-heeled throngs crowding the luxury buffet table, I scooted outside and swiped three glasses of water. I didn't think one would be enough. I waited till he'd recovered his composure and then wished him well and he said, ‘Thank you.’”
Then it happened. A moment Fincham will never forget.
Kennedy turned to her and said, “Kelly, don't give up -- we will pass immigration reform.”
“I wished him well and wish now I had known it would be the last time I would see him. I would have thanked him for everything he had done for us in the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform.”
“I can remember that 40-minute ride like it was yesterday. I introduced myself to the senator as I held the door for him and his wife. Two minutes into the car ride he said, ‘With a name like Pat I have to ask what part of the country are you from?’”
By country, Kennedy of course meant Ireland. Morris told the senator all about his Irish heritage, his family history and the immigration tale behind his family’s journey to the U.S.
“He seemed genuinely interested when I told him how my dad in 1960 had worked as a young committeeman in Long Island for his brother John's campaign,” remembers Morris.
“He had a big smile on his face when I told him I still have a picture of me at three years old in my cousin's arms with a big Kids For Kennedy sign in the background.
“He roared with laughter when I told him I had memories of knocking on doors in 1968 in Glen Cove, New York, with his brother, Senator Bobby Kennedy. He laughed when I told him my grandmother and all my Irish family in Ireland still had pictures on their mantles of President Kennedy.”
It was a connection and conversation Kennedy had with thousands of Irish Americans but for Morris it was one he would treasure forever.
“More than anything that day was an insight into a man who liked and cared about people. As we left the car, I said, ‘Thank you, senator.’ He said, ‘Call me Teddy.’
“That car ride will be one I will remember forever.”
NEW York lawyer Brian O’Dwyer first met Kennedy in 1963.
“I was a freshman at the George Washington University in Washington D.C. and was eager to intern with the recently elected senator from Massachusetts. Armed with a letter of introduction from my father I sought the coveted internship for the newest star of the Kennedy family,” O’Dwyer told the Irish Voice last week.
Although the work of an intern is mundane, O’Dwyer was far from disappointed.
“I remember that Ted would always know who we were and would ask us about our lives. Needless to say we were thrilled, so my personal admiration of Ted Kennedy stated well before my 21st birthday.”
O’Dwyer over the years developed a friendship with Kennedy. He recalls the senator’s disappointment at the failure of his immigration bill.
“I remember him coming to me and saying, ‘Take a look at the bill Brian, I sure took care of the Irish.’ He never forgot a friend or an enemy, but constantly strived to make sure bridges were built and gaps overcome,” said O’Dwyer.
“He profoundly influenced my life and an entire generation of Irish Catholics. We will not see the likes of him again.”
“The heavens opened and poured at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help as the world bid farewell, to the ‘senator of perpetual help,’ writes Hill in an email.
“In the once Irish ghetto of Roxbury, Massachusetts, it was perhaps all the more fitting for a man who dedicated his life to furthering the cause of the disposed and the downtrodden of the United States, that he would lie in repose amidst the dilapidated buildings of Roxbury.”
Hill said it wasn’t the eulogies from the pulpit that “summed up the measure of this great man,” but the quiet “respectful stories” from the general public.
While Hill was shopping for a dress for his daughter, Saoirse, on Main Street in Martha’s Vineyard, the owner of the store told Hill that Kennedy had helped her husband get a visa to come to the U.S.
Hill remembers Kennedy’s push on race equality and his stance on justice.
“A cop in Boston once told me, ‘We'd still be at the bottom of the ladder, but he didn't just help us up, he instilled in us that once we got up, it is our duty to reach our hand down, and help the next person up,” Hill said.
“Many great things will be penned in the memory of this man, and as ever there are those who will attempt to dwell on his frailties in life. It is in this regard that when we recall Teddy, we recall that he was all to human, but in the twilight of his life the good vastly out weighed his frailties,” he added.