Duty to serve

Sun Staff

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend sat scribbling notes at the funeral of Crystal Sheffield, a Baltimore police officer killed in a car crash while answering a call for help. The occasion marked another life cut short in its prime: A dedicated public servant, beloved spouse and parent.

Would you like to speak? someone had asked the gubernatorial candidate.

Townsend hadn't planned on it. But as she stood to face the silent crowd contemplating a senseless death, she pulled forth words she had memorized as a child. It was a quotation her father, Robert F. Kennedy, had taught her to appreciate.

"Even in our sleep," she told the gathering, "pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart. And in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."

The words belonged to the Greek tragedian and poet Aeschylus. Her father had used them most memorably in the impromptu speech he delivered at a political rally in Indianapolis in April 1968 after informing the stunned crowd that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been shot.

Kennedy's listeners understood that the senator, who was running for president, felt the full weight of these words dealing with the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Now, 34 years later, Townsend's audience could also hear the double meaning.

"My experience has been that that pain does not diminish," she later told a group at a Sept. 11 memorial service, according to a news account. "There are still days, weeks, months, years later that you still wonder, 'Why did this happen?'"

As she goes about her campaign, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend remains a candidate colored by the images and words of her late father and uncle. More than most politicians, Townsend grew up in the corner of the public eye. She was born into a family who married, gave birth and mourned in public, who achieved the heights of fame and depths of disgrace in newspapers and magazines. Running for office has meant constantly referring to her childhood, to her years before public service. After decades of answering questions about her parents - What was it really like to be a Kennedy? - the 51-year-old lieutenant governor finds a way to make her responses thoughtful and fresh.

And those who watched her grow up say her life of privilege was not always what people may assume.

In June 1968, when Robert Kennedy was shot after winning California's Democratic presidential primary, Kathleen was 16. She was intelligent, confident, independent and something of a ham - a passionately opinionated teen-ager who persuaded her parents to let her leave an all-girl Catholic day school to attend a co-ed boarding school where students milked cows as well as studied calculus.

The oldest of her generation of Kennedys, Kathleen became the first to discard the family's educational blueprint. Later, she became the first Kennedy woman to run for elected office, the first Kennedy to lose a general election and the first to try again.

To lose a parent so violently was a defining moment. But rather than create her commitment to public service, Townsend says, it merely strengthened it.

"The most important lessons [of my childhood] were that you were supposed to make a contribution," she says. "That St. Luke admonition that 'to those who have been given much, much will be expected' was a very strong strain of everything we did. ... A large part of the discussion at dinner was about what have you done, what have you contributed each day. Part of that may have been my family, but it was also a very Catholic idea of examining your conscience and taking stock. ... [Growing up] there was a real sense that we were supposed to be doing something good and useful and productive."

Just how that translated for Kathleen, however, was less clear.

"As a child, it was hard to envision my future," she says. "On the one hand, there was a real sense of mission and purpose [in the family], but that was demonstrated by running for office. At that time, there weren't a lot of female legislators in any family. So I knew I wanted to do something meaningful, but I wasn't sure how it would manifest itself."

Born on July 4, 1951, the eldest of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children, Kathleen grew up at Hickory Hill, the family's 10-acre estate in McLean, Va. She spent summers with cousins at the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod, where daily activities were organized with the tightly scheduled efficiency of summer camp. As the oldest of Rose Kennedy's grandchildren, she became the first of that generation to hear the family stories and receive lessons in manners from the famous matriarch.

At Hickory Hill, things were more casual. There were ponies and pets galore, a swimming pool. When Ethel Kennedy would drive her growing brood of children to school, she would make up stories each day in which her youngsters performed heroic deeds. Kathleen devoured the stories of girl sleuths Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, and dreamed of showing the courage of Joan of Arc and other female saints she learned to admire from her Catholic education.

"You hardly saw a photograph of Kathleen without a book," says Ethel Kennedy, who remembers her daughter reading with a "fierce concentration."

"She loved going to school. I had never met anyone who loved going to school, but Kathleen did from the get-go."

Because her next three siblings were boys, Kathleen soon formed tight friendships with girls like Anne Coffey, another outdoorsy first-grader who also had short hair.

Coffey, now Anne Proctor, and another elementary school friend, Mary Connole, fondly recall sleepovers at Kathleen's in her spacious room with twin beds and a floor that could accommodate several more guests. Kathleen and her friends rode horses, swam, climbed trees or put together variety shows. Sometimes they attempted something implicitly verboten, like exploring the rooftop of the British Embassy, the home of another pal, Alice Ormsby-Gore. There was no time, they say, for playing with Barbies or worrying about how they looked.

While Hickory Hill had the chaotic ebb and flow common to other large households she knew, Proctor always counted her time there as special. Whenever she visited, she noticed Washington power brokers, grown-ups with whom Kathleen, as the oldest child, regularly conversed. And Proctor was inducted into the Kennedy tradition of didactic dining: Supper meant discussing current events, listening to history lessons and sometimes even reciting such poems as "If," "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

"There was a certain joviality to everything at dinner, but also a deep intellectual curiosity," Proctor remembers. "Preparedness for meals was not only washing your hands, but also grabbing a newspaper and finding something interesting you could talk about."

It was a tradition Robert Kennedy brought from his own childhood, and it left a major impact on his offspring and their friends.

"First, Bobby was trying to get them used to being a public person and to mastering a subject. And then he was shaping their moral and political code. They were 'teaching moments' for him," says Harrison Rainie, co-author with John Quinn of Growing Up Kennedy: The Third Wave Comes of Age.

As a parent of four daughters, Townsend has occasionally used the dinner table as a classroom; she recalls one period when her family used this time together to learn the names of all the countries of Africa.

Her own childhood memories include a lot of time listening to grownups talk about the Cold War and civil rights.

"I very much remember my father fighting corruption in the Teamsters Union," she says. "I learned, 'You've got to do the right thing.' I learned that you can see for yourself that there's good and bad in the world and that you have to take on those tough fights. I learned that that's the noble thing to do and the right thing to do and what you're set on earth to do."

Her friends found her opinionated - and truthful.

"When we were growing up, Kathleen would definitely tell you what she thought," says Connole. "She would tell you if your dress looked icky. Or if you looked good, she'd tell you. If you were putting on a few pounds, she'd tell you. But never in a hurtful way, never hurtful. Just truthful. We never let it get to us. We were a tough bunch of young broads."

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend describes herself as someone who almost always sees the glass as three-quarters full. Asked about memorable times growing up, she mentions long Sunday walks with her family, summer camping trips, a hike with her father and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.

"Clearly there were very, very tough times, too. Tough times and very sad times," she says.

When her uncle, President Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, Kathleen was 12. On the day of the funeral, her father, who was then the attorney general, wrote her a letter that she has framed.

Dear Kathleen,

As the eldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have a special responsibility to Joe and John and to all the grandchildren and the country. Be kind to others and serve our country.

Love, Daddy.

It was, in some ways, a prescription for her life. Adam Walinsky, Robert Kennedy's speechwriter and friend, considers much of Townsend's concern for public welfare to be a natural consequence to years spent looking out for younger sisters and brothers. Kathleen assumed more of a caretaking role after her father was killed, he says. At the time, her mother was pregnant with the couple's 11th child, Rory.

"I really took a lot of responsibility for my family then. A lot," Townsend agrees. "The year after he died was a difficult time for me. It was a difficult time in the life of my family."

In years to come, one brother, David, would lose his life to drugs; another, Michael, would die in a skiing accident. Joe would be involved in a Jeep accident that left a passenger crippled. Several siblings would have problems with substance abuse. Today, the remaining Kennedys, ages 33 to 51, include lawyers, businessmen, a filmmaker, a television reporter and an environmental activist.

"In a large family, people have very different talents, personalities and ways of dealing with things," Townsend says. "They can teach you how rich and diverse the world is.

"You also learn that you don't all get along at the same time. You'll get along with some kids for a couple of years, and then things will shift. You learn that people change, that what they want changes. And you learn not to make permanent judgments because people grow and mature."

Although the Kennedys clearly believed in grooming the next generation of boys to become national leaders, Robert Kennedy expected Kathleen and her friends to participate equally in the famous touch football games.

"My father often said, 'If you can touch it, you can catch it,'" Townsend recalls. "There were high expectations in everything we did. We weren't supposed to slump off. There was that sense that you were supposed to do well, do good and give 100 percent."

"We were every bit as much a part of the football huddle as the boys," says Proctor, who volunteers when she can for the Townsend campaign. "We were supposed to go out 10 feet and cut and go three steps and look up and the ball's there. And the boys would begrudgingly say, 'Yeah, nice job.' If there was a sense that the boys were superior or had a bigger destiny than the girls, it was put to rest through sports."

With her trim, athletic physique, enthusiasm and abundant energy, Kathleen excelled at sports. At school, she competed at field hockey. Second on the ski team at Harvard, she often served as a forerunner, the person who creates the path down the mountain before races. She was a sailor and a tennis player. But childhood friends always mention her riding first. They recall how she would compete on weekends, winning regional and even national awards until she had a terrifying accident.

When she was 14, Kathleen was competing in a show in Cape Cod when her horse, Attorney General, fell on her. She was rushed to the hospital in a coma with internal injuries. At the time, her parents were sailing off the coast of Newport in stormy seas. A Coast Guard cutter was dispatched to bring the Kennedys back to shore. However, the foul weather prevented the vessel from pulling close enough to the senator's boat to remove them.

Robert Kennedy dove into the sea, reportedly fighting to stay on top of the waves, and managed to swim to the cutter. He was at Kathleen's bedside three days later when she awakened from her coma.

Aside from demonstrating her father's love, Townsend says that the moral of this story is that she got back on the horse. And continued to ride, even after she was hospitalized a second time for another riding injury.

"I think what competition teaches you is that you win, and you lose, and you come back again," she says. "The whole thing about riding is that when you fall, you get back on the horse. You never give up. You always keep fighting, and you stay focused."

And her younger siblings were watching her.

"Kathleen was great as far as setting the bar for the rest of us," says Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, who is eight years younger. "She had a natural curiosity [about herself]. To her, competition was always about striving to be her best. It was never about beating somebody else. Following in her footsteps or playing sports with her was a real joy because she celebrated our victories as much as we did."

She also opened other doors for her siblings, says Kennedy Cuomo. Kathleen became the first Kennedy woman to attend Harvard University, from which she graduated with honors before becoming the family's first woman to attend law school.

But she began exploring new paths as a teen-ager when she left all-girl Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda to attend a progressive co-ed boarding school.

"This was a family on the Catholic straight-and-narrow," points out Adam Walinsky. "They were not into social experimentation, particularly with the kids. ... Kathleen was very, very straight, but decided she wanted to go to this 'flower child' school. A lot of kids might have said, 'I want to go to Putney,' as a frivolous thing, but not Kathleen. Kathleen has never been frivolous. When she says, 'I want to do something,' the odds are overwhelming that she has thought it through. That has been her characteristic since childhood."

"She was always pushing the edge, broadening her horizons," her mother recalls. "Kathleen was interested in seeing teen-agers from different backgrounds. She knew there was a bigger world out there and just yearned to see it."

Why did she choose the Putney School?

"Very frankly, by 10th grade, most of the conversations turned out to be about who people were going to date on Friday or Saturday night," Townsend says. "I thought, if that's what you're going to talk about, you might as well be at a co-ed school where you're not just seeing boys as creatures at a party but as people you could have a relationship with. I thought that at a boarding school you could do lots of things together. And at that time (the late 1960s) Putney was one of the few co-ed boarding schools."

And perhaps the only one requiring daily barn chores in order to graduate. Still distinctive for emphasizing physical labor as well as academic work, Putney is part of a working dairy farm in southeastern Vermont. Roughly 200 students in grades nine through 12 help keep the place running. In addition to doing barn and land work, they help prepare and serve meals and wash up afterward. They keep the buildings clean. They harvest maple sugar and cut trees.

Although students follow a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, they usually do not see their grades until applying to college because Putney holds that students should "learn to work for the love of knowledge, the excitement of discovery and the joy of using their minds effectively."

Kathleen also found the school iconoclastic in less dramatic ways. She called her teachers by their first names - a long leap for a Catholic school girl. No radios or stereos were allowed in the dorms. In those days, music was reserved either for those who were actually making it - or to those who were giving it their full attention in a special listening room.

The school was challenging, different and often exhausting. Townsend loved it.

"You got up at 5 in the morning and mucked out stalls, you served the food, you helped farm. I actually lived in a dorm that was built by students. There was this whole sense that life meant everyone had to participate. ... I always had from that Putney experience the idea that everybody should be able to do everything."

It was a conviction that later blossomed in her campaign to make community service a requirement of high school graduation in Maryland.

The school brought other lessons as well. During the first week at Putney, Sonia Kelly Reese remembers becoming close to Kathleen. At the time, Reese was one of the school's seven students of color, a scholarship student whose father was a chauffeur. Before long, she was visiting Kathleen at Hyannis Port, and Kathleen was visiting her in Harlem.

"Here was this person who was quote, unquote, a Kennedy," recalls Reese, who runs Community Impact, a volunteer service program for students at Columbia University in New York. "She was lively and enthusiastic, and she could reach out and talk to all of us about issues that were very difficult. And she always stood her ground. She could be very bubbly one minute and then go on to strong, compelling thoughts about justice, poverty and people's rights.

"She never had the flamboyance the other Kennedys seemed to have. She had charisma and charm, but her intensity was more the low-level kind that you discovered more and more after you met her."

Kathleen also liked to take risks, to try new ways of doing things. When they were members of Putney's entertainment committee, Kathleen convinced Sonia that they should add an evening of Motown sounds to the school's Saturday night lineup of square dances.

"She talked me into finding these African-American kids to come up from Harlem and play," Reese says. "Everyone thought we were nuts, but we did it. We were going to make our Saturday night different, make something unusual happen."

Another Putney classmate, Kathleen's roommate Sophie Spurr, remembers the teen-ager as someone who was "always reading heady stuff" but who also enjoyed creating goofy skits to entertain people - a tradition the two friends have continued at 30th, 40th and now, 50th birthday celebrations.

Now a lawyer in rural Maine, Spurr also remembers the night Kathleen's dad visited Putney. Only weeks away from announcing his presidential candidacy, the New York senator talked to the students about the importance of serving their country, of making a difference.

Shortly after his appearance, the two roommates decided they would spend that summer of their junior year working on a Navajo reservation, helping to teach Native American children about their heritage. And they followed through with their plan, even after Kathleen's father was murdered. It was what her father would have expected her to do, Townsend says.

"Kathleen always had a very strong moral compass," her mother says. "And she has a quality of her father's: She gets passionate when she sees something unjust. She really gets sore. ... When she came home [from the reservation] she was literally shaking with the indignity of the poverty there."

Putney's administration and faculty worried the death of her father might disable Kathleen and keep her from returning for her senior year.

"Then she came back with such extraordinary strength - an indication of how things were going to unfold for Kathleen over time," says Sven Huseby, who taught American history in 1968. "Her inner strength is just exceptional. And as a young person, she had that in spades."

In class, he says, Kathleen remained "a real go-getter."

"She was extremely thorough," he says. "If she didn't get something, she'd read it again and again. She was prideful about coming to class prepared to argue a point, to defend her interpretation of things. As a result, she was a real catalyst for class discussions. She always had a point of view; I loved that. And she was dogged in arguing a point.

"What really sticks in my mind is that Kathleen didn't do anything partially. If she got a paper back that had criticism on it, she wanted to respond and make sure it was incorporated into the next thing she wrote. She was very conscious of growing as a student."

And outside of class?

"Kathleen loved to pitch in," Huseby says, "She never shirked work when there was work to be done. If you were cutting hay, and there were extra bales to be picked up, or if you needed extra kids to pick up potatoes or rocks, or for sugaring in the spring, she was someone you could always call on."

Reese says Townsend is one of the few people she thinks of when she suffers difficult times. Other old friends talk about her inspiration.

"Kathleen is someone who opens up possibilities and helps me cross new boundaries," says Proctor. "She makes me realize that the limits I put on myself are totally artificial, that I can do much more than I thought I could."

In 1969, the two girls climbed the Matterhorn together. Last year, the lieutenant governor celebrated her 50th birthday by inviting her friend - and two of their children - to climb Mount Rainier.

To read a companion profile of GOP gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s childhood years, visit www.baltimoresun.com/ehrlich. A full archive of Sun stories on the 2002 election can be found at www.baltimoresun.com/news/elections.

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