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Sen. Edward M. Kennedy dies at 77

Glen Johnson
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy dies at 77
(Photo: AP /Rodolfo Gonzalez/Rocky Mountain News)

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., greets the crowd at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Monday, Aug. 25, 2008, at the Pepsi Center. Kennedy, whom President Barack Obama called “the greatest United States senator of our time,” died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod after a year-long struggle with brain cancer. He was 77. (AP photo/Rodolfo Gonzalez/Rocky Mountain News)

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the last surviving brother in a political dynasty and one of the most influential senators in history, died Tuesday night at his home on Cape Cod after a year-long struggle with brain cancer. He was 77.

In nearly 50 years in the Senate, Kennedy, a liberal Democrat, served alongside 10 presidents – his brother, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, among them. He compiled an impressive list of legislative achievements on health care, civil rights, education, immigration and more.

His only run for the White House ended in defeat in 1980. More than a quarter-century later, he handed then-Sen. Barack Obama an endorsement at a critical point in the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, explicitly likening the young contender to President Kennedy.

To the American public, Kennedy was best known as the last surviving son of America’s most glamorous political family, father figure and, memorably, eulogist of an Irish American clan plagued again and again by tragedy.

Kennedy’s death triggered an outpouring of superlatives, from Democrats and Republicans as well as foreign leaders.

“An important chapter in our history has come to an end,” Obama said in a written statement. “Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest United States senator of our time.

“For five decades, virtually every major piece of legislation to advance the civil rights, health and economic well being of the American people bore his name and resulted from his efforts,” said Obama, vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard off the Massachusetts coast.

Kennedy’s family announced his death in a brief statement released early Wednesday.

“We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever,” the statement said. “We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all.”

A few hours later, two vans left the family compound at Hyannis Port in pre-dawn darkness. Both bore hearse license plates – with the word “hearse” blacked out.

There was no immediate word on funeral arrangements. Two of Kennedy’s brothers, John and Robert, are buried at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada issued a statement that said, “It was the thrill of my lifetime to work with Ted Kennedy. … The liberal lion’s mighty roar may now fall silent, but his dream shall never die.”

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan said that her husband and Kennedy “could always find common ground, and they had great respect for one another.”

Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, taking the seat that his brother John had occupied before winning the White House, and served longer than all but two senators in history.

His own hopes of reaching the White House were damaged – perhaps doomed – in 1969 by the scandal that came to be known as Chappaquiddick, an auto accident that left a young woman dead. He sought the White House more than a decade later, lost the Democratic nomination to President Jimmy Carter, and bowed out with a stirring valedictory that echoed across the decades: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

Kennedy was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in May 2008 and underwent surgery and a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy.

He made a surprise return to the Capitol last summer to cast the decisive vote for the Democrats on Medicare. He made sure he was there again last January to see former Senate colleague Obama sworn in as the nation’s first black president, but suffered a seizure at a celebratory luncheon afterward.

He also made a surprise and forceful appearance at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his own illness and said health care was the cause of his life. His death occurred precisely one year later, almost to the hour.

He was away from the Senate for much of this year, leaving Republicans and Democrats to speculate about what his absence meant for the fate of Obama’s health care proposals.

Under state law, Kennedy’s successor will be chosen by special election. In his last known public act, the senator urged state officials to give Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick the power to name an interim replacement. But that appears unlikely, leaving Democrats in Washington with one less vote for the next several months as they struggle to pass Obama’s health care legislation.

His death came less than two weeks after that of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver on Aug. 11. Kennedy was not present for the funeral, an indication of the precariousness of his own health.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Kennedy’s son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said his father had defied the predictions of doctors by surviving more than a year with his fight against brain cancer.

The younger Kennedy said that gave family members a surprise blessing, as they were able to spend more time with the senator and to tell him how much he had meant to their lives.