One of a kind

I have a lot of acquaintances in Congress and many friends, but one who stood out above the rest and to whom I always felt close was Ted Kennedy. It was a privilege to know him as a friend, and it was an honor to work with one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable senators I ever met. His passing is truly a great loss for our country. I am hopeful, however, that in mourning his death, we will be inspired to continue to fight for the causes to which he dedicated himself so tirelessly and work together to pass the comprehensive healthcare reform that he called “the cause of my life.”

My relationship with the Kennedys started back in 1960 when I was a volunteer on John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president and had the privilege of meeting his mother Rose, who was nothing but gracious and kind. When Rose came to my hometown of Flint, Mich., to campaign for her son, it was my responsibility to get her to Mass at St. Michael’s. It wasn’t even Sunday, but Rose went to Mass every day. I met John later that year when he was campaigning for the presidency and again in October of 1962 when he came to campaign for the midterm congressional elections. Shortly thereafter he went back to Washington claiming he had a “bad cold,” even though he appeared to be the picture of health. We learned later that we weren’t completely misled, but that it was a different kind of cold flaring up — the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the most heated moments of the Cold War.

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Ted was the last member of the Kennedy family whom I actually met, but my relationship with him lasted the longest. Like his brothers, Ted was born into a life of privilege, but instead of choosing a comfortable life of leisure, he chose to work hard in the U.S. Senate, fighting to improve the lives of American families. Ted successfully fought to raise the minimum wage, protect Americans with disabilities, expand health insurance for low-income children and improve educational opportunities for all students, regardless of family income. His legislative accomplishments were so wide in scope that his work has changed the life of nearly every American for the better.

Ted and I shared a passion to improve education and we worked together often, particularly during the Head Start Reauthorization of 2007, which he and I authored. During many of the other conferences we worked on together, when differences arose that were slowing down the passage of legislation, Ted was a skilled and fair negotiator who would keep the conversation going until late into the night to make sure things were resolved. From Ted, I learned that compromise is often necessary to achieve the greater good. But above all, he taught me that we must never stop fighting for what we believe in.

While Ted achieved greatness in his political life, he was no stranger to personal tragedy and suffering. The country mourned with him as first John and then Bobby were taken from us in acts of violence, leaving Ted as the only remaining Kennedy brother. A 1964 plane crash broke his back and left him with terrible pain that plagued him for the rest of his life, but he never let his condition get in the way of his goals for the country. His discomfort was evident on the trips he often took with me to Flint, where he always enjoyed visiting Buick UAW Local 599. It was difficult for him to stand for long, but he would patiently pose for pictures and sign autographs for the workers there, who greeted him as a hero. He would stay until his back became too painful and then he would turn to me and say, “Dale, you have to get me out of here, now,” and we would make a quick exit so he could rest in my campaign van, which he referred to as the “Kildee Express.” Even while in pain, he always had a smile on his face and was an inspiration to those around him.

I have never known another senator like Ted Kennedy, and we may never see another like him again. He carried on the torch of his family’s political legacy, masterfully reaching across the aisle to shepherd important and often difficult pieces of legislation through Congress. As we mourn the passing of our friend Ted, let us celebrate his numerous achievements and remember him for the great humanitarian and leader that he was. Let us honor his memory by never giving up the fight for social justice, never resting until every child has an equal chance to learn, and never backing down until every American has access to quality affordable healthcare. He often called universal healthcare “the cause of my life” and it is a tragedy that he will not be around to vote for the legislation for which he fought so tirelessly. So let’s continue the fight in his honor and pass healthcare reform so that all Americans, regardless of income, age or pre-existing condition, will have access to quality, affordable healthcare. Let’s realize this dream for Ted and for America.

 

Rep. Kildee is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.