With the Boston skyline a sparkling backdrop framed in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library's enormous windows, 13 of Kennedy's closest friends, colleagues and family members shared their favorite personal, poignant and sometimes bawdy memories of Rose and Joseph's youngest son, Edward M. Kennedy.
"Captain Ahab," former Senator John Culver pronounced Kennedy after recounting a college-years tale of the first time Kennedy had taken him sailing an episode where Culver coughed up two partially digested salmon sandwiches, along with a good night's sleep, and was rewarded with a case of the chills. The audience laughed so hard many women left without mascara.
Former Rep. Joe Kennedy told a story of his uncle's patience after he rammed a 15-foot buoy in a yachting race a foul that earns you a trip back to the starting line. Ted Kennedy, though, refused to give up and ultimately won the race a lesson, his nephew said, that Kennedy applied to every aspect of his life. "If people don't have health insurance, you stay in the race. If people don't have adequate health care, you stay in the race," Joe Kennedy railed.
And at some moments in the three-and-a-half-hour service 90 minutes longer than planned the sea was a mother, welcoming her children home. The afternoon after Kennedy died, John Kerry, recalled, "I looked out at a perfect Nantucket Sound and thought to myself with certainty: he's on a schooner now. He's sailing Ted, Joe, Jack and Bobby on the fore-deck; Kathleen, Pat, Eunice and Rosemary trading stories with their parents. Ted at the helm, steering his steady course. Sail on my friend," said Kerry, his voice breaking. "Sail on."
Kennedy was remembered above all for his humanity for leading by example and putting others before him. "He never told us what to do," said Caroline Kennedy, Ted's niece. "He just did it himself and we learned by his example." She broke down a bit when, after recalling several (sometimes miserable pitching tents in 98 degrees, amid mosquitoes with 20 kids under 10) family-history trips, she said she realized her uncle's motorcade through Boston Wednesday was the last family history trip he'd give them.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick told a touching story about a trip Kennedy took to Israel for the funeral of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Before leaving, Kennedy collected handfuls of dirt from the graves of his slain brothers, Jack and Robert, in Arlington National Cemetery. After the funeral had ended and everyone had gone, Kennedy went back and spread the soil he'd brought on Rabin's grave. "No publicity just a good man doing a sweet thing," Patrick recalled.
Vice President Joe Biden said he "wouldn't be standing here were it not for Teddy Kennedy. I wouldn't be Vice President of the United States. I wouldn't even be a United States senator." Senators John McCain and Orrin Hatch crossed the aisle to roast and toast their good friend. Kennedy's closest friend, Senator Chris Dodd, got off some catheter humor before, growing serious, he confided the secret to Kennedy's legislative prowess. "People liked him," Dodd said. "He always had a great staff and great ideas, but that only counts for so much in the United States Senate if you lack the respect and admiration of your colleagues. And Teddy earned that respect."
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns offered a video, Brian Stokes Mitchell sang one of Kennedy's favorite songs, "The Impossible Dream," accompanied by Vytas Baksys. And Irish tenors John McDermott and Colm Wilkinson led the audience to its feet for a final, rousing version of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." The crowd of more than 600 included 85 Kennedy family members, actress Lauren Bacall, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former Senator John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Obama political adviser David Axelrod and former NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw.
The late senator himself, who helped plan the event, had perhaps the most appropriate comment of the evening quoted in the program. "It is our responsibility to live in our time not to look back to the receding shore, but to sail ahead in hope, remembering whence we came, cherishing the values we carry with us, searching out the newer and better world which is the next destination and discovery of the American journey," Kennedy wrote.
On Saturday he will be laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery next to his brothers after a morning funeral mass in Boston.