Duty To Serve

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend grew up a child of privilege and promise, but also of tragedy. All have made her the women she is today.

Election 2002


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."

FOR THE RECORD - The pictures from the John F. Kennedy Library that accompanied an article about Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's childhood in yesterday's Today section should have been credited to photographer Elizabeth Kuhner. The Sun regrets the error.

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.

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