Two spouses with two styles

David Townsend: The professor campaigns for his wife, but his most valued contribution has been his support on the home front.

Election 2002

October 07, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

On a recent afternoon in Annapolis, in a classroom stocked with uncomfortable straight-back chairs and a giant wooden table, David L. Townsend -- professor by the standard definition, tutor in the language of St. John's College -- quietly moderated a wide-ranging discussion of two 1633 sonnets penned by the metaphysical poet John Donne.

The same day, his wife Kathleen, Maryland's lieutenant governor, stepped onto the campaign trail where she has sometimes stumbled on her message, to ramp up attacks on her Republican gubernatorial opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., declaring him "clearly out of step with Maryland's mainstream."

She has long been the one with the public persona, whether she sought it or not, attracting attention as much for her membership in the storied Kennedy clan as anything else.

He, though, is more at ease in the classroom where what you say is often far more valued than how you say it, a true intellectual who in a given semester may teach ancient Greek or non-Euclidean geometry or the French lyric poetry.

"He's the quiet strength behind the scenes," said Stephen Hayes, who has worked with David Townsend on an AIDS research project. "Nobody knows this guy. He's a very private person."

For his wife, though, Townsend will do anything -- and always has. So three days a week, the lanky, bespectacled academic pulls on his "Team Townsend" T-shirt, tacks on a button with her photo on it and heads out to campaign.

He gives well-thought-out and well-delivered speeches, hitting the issues important to the crowd of the hour and sharing some about his life as a native son of Maryland. He endures parades of politicians led by color guards, dogs on skateboards and blue soft drinks -- all on the way to shake as many hands as he can, imploring those he meets to "Please vote for my beloved wife."

"He's a professor, so he likes his quiet time. He likes to stay in and study his philosophy," says 18-year-old Kate, the third of their four daughters (ranging from ages 10 to 24), who is taking a semester off from Brown University to help campaign. "For him to put his face out there seems unusual to me, but he seems to be having fun."

He has never been an actual adviser to the campaign, the Townsends said, though they are always talking and bouncing ideas off one another. His primary contribution to his wife's political career has been holding down the home front while she worked 14-hour days. He made hot cereal for the girls, packed lunches, did the laundry, bought the groceries, cheered at soccer games, read The Hobbitt, played chess and "put up pigtails," as Kate put it -- all while holding down several interesting positions himself.

"The first role he plays is he's an incredibly supportive husband," the candidate said. "It would be very hard to run for office" without that.

When David Townsend married Kathleen Kennedy nearly 29 years ago, he said he never thought she would go into politics, despite her lineage as eldest daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy and niece of the late President John F. Kennedy.

He thought she would be an artist. Her bridesmaids gave them a potter's wheel as a wedding gift.

"It seems odd now, but in the early '70s, this was not something women did and not something women in the Kennedy family did," he said.

They met at Harvard University, where David Townsend went after graduating from Dulaney High School in Timonium and Loyola College in Baltimore.

He was working toward his doctorate and tutoring undergraduate honors students in American literature. She was one of the 10 who were assigned to him.

She was smitten with him. He didn't notice.

"I was a rather naive 23-year-old and she was a very mature 20-year-old," Townsend recalled, smiling. "She would say things like, `We should meet more often' and I would schedule more tutorials."

They fell in love during the summer of 1972 on a trip she organized for her classmates. Since they had been studying Mississippi Valley writings -- the works of Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, George Washington Cable -- she decided they should ride a handmade raft 500 miles down the big river.

They married in 1973, with hundreds packed into Trinity Church in Georgetown for the Kennedy extravaganza. Andy Williams sang "Ave Maria," and the whole party sang "When Irish Eyes are Smiling."

He seems unfazed now, after years as part of one of the nation's most-talked-about families. He, instead, prefers to talk about his own family.

Father an educator

His 89-year-old mother, Dolores Fahey, who was abandoned by her teen-age mother when she was a tot, grew up in orphanages on the Irish east side of Baltimore and remembers spending some nights sleeping in the streets.

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