Staffers recall large dogs and a man larger than life

Sen. Edward Kennedy was a political giant but to congressional staff say he never forgot the little guy.

The larger-than-life political figure would open doors for Capitol Hill workers, say kind things to their grandchildren and give them money for excellent report cards.

Kennedy’s death at 77 late Tuesday after a 15-month battle with brain cancer came as several components of the normally bustling Senate were closed and most staffers were on vacation.

Yet stories were still easy to find, starting with the U.S. Capitol Police guard who was watching the first-floor door at the Russell Senate Office Building where Kennedy most often entered and exited — usually with his two large Portuguese water dogs, Sunny and Splash. The guard remembered how Kennedy often let the dogs leap into the Senate pool.

“Oh, they [Senate officials] hated when he let them do that,” the guard said. “Because then they’d have to drain the pool.”

Michael Johnson, now a deputy assistant sergeant at arms in the Senate, met Kennedy when he was a 9-year-old paperboy selling the Washington Evening Star in the Russell building and the Dirksen Senate Office Building nearby, where Kennedy’s brother Robert had his own office after his 1964 election.

Johnson, who is African-American, said he met Edward Kennedy around the time of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and that the senator he offered him $1 for every “A” he made at his Capitol Hill elementary school.

“He had me bring him my report card,” Johnson said. “He used to sit and talk to me about college, urging me to stay in school and work hard. He said if I needed anything to let him know.”

Johnson eventually graduated with degrees from Cornell University and Bowie State University before returning to the Senate to work as a computer technician. He is now in charge of the chamber’s continuity plans in the event of an emergency.

“I knew he was an icon to the world, but to me he was like a grandfather,” Johnson said. “I was a little snotty-nosed kid from the ghetto. We were going through a rough time in this country at the time, and I was from a very poor, disadvantaged background. I think that’s what sparked him … This was what he fought against, and when it was right there in his backyard, he didn’t ignore it.”

Some relayed colorful memories of a man who, in his 46 years in the upper chamber, came into contact with hundreds of the people who guard doors, set up chairs, make sandwiches and run the Senate floor.

“I got a million of them [stories],” said Albert Caswell, a tour guide in the Capitol for 23 years, while eating lunch on Friday. He mentioned the time he saw Kennedy walk past one of his tours, prompting him to shout to the senator, “Red Sox Nation!”

“Yeah!” Kennedy roared back — to boos from some of the tourists, Caswell said.

Caswell also remembered telling Kennedy about a Catholic priest friend of his whose dream it was to meet the senator.
Kennedy said, “Does he take confessions?”

Caswell wrote several poems about Kennedy. He would give them to the senator, and Kennedy would send him thank-you notes, he said.

“Most of the time he walked around the building, he was quiet. [But] if you ever saw him behind the scenes, he was just a joy,” Caswell said.

Not every congressional employee had constant interactions with Kennedy, but the times they did cross paths with him, they remember.

“He introduced me to his dogs,” said Eliza Walker, the head cashier at the Dirksen cafeteria. Walker also remembers introducing him to her two grandchildren, 10 and 11 years old at the time. “He was very friendly,” she said.

A far less visible corner of Kennedy’s Senate life was his hideaway office on the third floor of the Capitol, facing a postcard view of the National Mall and Washington Monument. Kennedy often hosted his lunch visitors in the office, which is now located next door to the office of Senate Chaplain Barry Black. Black remembers one of many afternoons when Kennedy displayed his impish sense of humor after meeting with then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

“The senator stuck his head in my office and said, ‘I think I have someone here who you’d want to meet,’ ” Black recalled. “I thought, ‘Who could he possibly be meeting with that I would want to meet?’ And then I end up spending 30 minutes with the secretary-general of the United Nations. That’s the kind of generous spirit and sense of humor that Sen. Kennedy had.”

Before it housed Black’s office, the large suite next to Kennedy’s hideaway for years was the Senate Library. Because Kennedy’s office had no bathroom, his visitors had to go to the library and ask for a key to a shared bathroom in the hallway.

That, in turn, allowed librarians such as Ann Womeldorf and Greg Harness, both now retired, to meet Kennedy’s lunch guests over the years: Barbra Streisand. Woody Allen. Kevin Costner. And, one day, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

Harness, who worked 33 years in the library and headed it for the last decade before retiring, said he often worked late into the night and microwaved popcorn to munch on.

“The smell of it always enticed the good senator to come in and join me for a handful,” Harness said. “He once sent me a personal note after I had a car accident. He was just a special man that everyone adored. An extremely friendly, friendly, friendly man who always had time to check in with you and see how you’re doing.”

Caswell, the Capitol tour guide, wrote one last poem for Kennedy, called “Our Nation’s Tears.” He had it in the pocket of his red jacket on Friday.

Our Nation’s Tears …
As now, so lie here!
For one of America’s finest of all sons … this one oh so dear …

“It’s just a loss,” Caswell said. “Such a loss.”