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Remembering Ted Kennedy, 'Family Man'

Sen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki before his address to the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
Paul J. Richards
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Edward Kennedy receives a kiss from his wife Vicki before his address to the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy came from a family whose siblings "loved each other with a vengeance," dictated notes for a future memoir after his First Communion, and faced the illness that killed him with his distinctive mix of optimism and pragmatism.

So says Victoria Reggie Kennedy, his wife of 17 years, in her first news broadcast interview since the senator's death in August.

From a library filled with family photos, Vicki Kennedy talked to Scott Simon about life with a man who made family and friends the center of days jammed with public business.

"He tended to family, and he tended to friends," she says. "He made time for the people he cared about in his life."

She says there seemed to be more than 24 hours in one of Ted Kennedy's days.

"I think the rules of nature were suspended when it came to him," she says. "He filled every moment."

And until the last, she says, he maintained his vital role.

"Teddy was so much still the man with the big shoulders," she recalls. "He was the person being strong for all of us. The only day he spent in bed was the day he died. That was the only day he spent in bed. He was a force of nature."

She does not think of his last summer as "a sad time."

"It was a beautiful time," she says. "I'll be forever grateful for that."

'An Old-Fashioned Courtship'

Their romance began on the night of a wedding anniversary — the 40th for Vicki Kennedy's parents. Her father suggested they invite the sailing fanatic they called "The Commander" over for dinner.

She recalls that she greeted the senator by saying: "What's wrong Kennedy, couldn't you get a date?"

"Well, I thought you'd be my date," he said.

"Dream on," she shot back.

But it wasn't a dream. They were married a year later, after a "really old-fashioned courtship" that included nightly dinners at her home. She would arrive with groceries and find Ted Kennedy coloring on the floor with her 5-year-old daughter, or doing homework with her 8-year-old son.

"We had a really old-fashioned courtship, and we just clicked. We just clicked," she recalls. "We had shared values, shared beliefs. He understood me, and I understood him. Who can explain why? It just happened."

'He Was A Family Man'

Vicky Kennedy dismisses a question about what it was like to "be a Kennedy," but she notes the power of the Kennedy clan.

"The family was the center of his life," she says. "I think it defined in so many ways who he was. He was a family man. He loved his family."

And he especially loved the siblings with whom he had shared so much love and so much loss.

"They just loved each other with just a vengeance, they really did," she says, noting that Ted's sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, moved to Hyannisport to be near Ted as both faced illnesses.

She insists her husband spent little time worrying about the "gossip" that his famous family — and some of the more infamous events of his own life — eternally generates. He was taught early, by his parents, not to pay attention, she says.

"Teddy had a philosophy: Keep your eye on the ball and keep moving forward," she says. "He didn't read gossip. He was so sure of what he was doing and why he was doing it."

'He Did Not Intend To Excuse Himself'

But in the end, she notes, Kennedy was bent on addressing his own foibles head on. He had long planned to write a memoir, taking "copious notes" throughout his life.

"I have a copy of his notes which he dictated to his nanny, on his First Communion, which he received from Pope Pius XII," she says with a laugh.

He approached the book "determined not to make excuses, not to be a bellyacher," she says. "He did not intend to excuse himself."

The writing process made use of Ted Kennedy's organizational skills.

"Teddy was the most disciplined person that I ever knew, which is something that may be at odds with what people might think," she says. "He was very scheduled, and he would meet that schedule."

The work concluded on time — in fact, with a new sense of urgency — despite Kennedy's illness. The brain tumor that killed him at age 77 was revealed by a sense of dizziness that turned out to be a major seizure.

"Getting that diagnosis was a bolt from the blue," she recalls. "It came out of nowhere. No symptoms, no nothing. It was the beginning of a journey that was so unexpected."

He continued without symptoms as the disease progressed.

"It was just so hard to fathom that this was what we were dealing with," she recalls. "He was always focused. He never felt sorry for himself. He always looked forward with hope, with optimism, but also with a lot of realism."

'He Understood The Suffering Of Other People'

She sees that combination of "optimism" and "pragmatism" as a rare and defining character trait that allowed her husband to focus on "the best in people."

"I think he had suffered in his own life ... and I think he understood the suffering of other people."

"He was a good judge of people. He learned a lot about people. He was always looking for what the good part of someone was."

And that approach helped him make lifelong friends across party lines.

"You can be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but you're not enemies," she says, describing her husband's attitude. "You disagree with how to get there, but you still love this country. You still want what's best. You just differ on how to get there."

'Teddy Was The Senator'

Vicki Kennedy is a lawyer who grew up in a politically oriented family, but says she did not consider following her husband into the Senate.

"It was never, never, never, never of interest to me," she says. "I felt like we had Sen. Kennedy in our household ... Teddy was the senator. Teddy was the senator."

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