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A Cape Cod village mourns

Hyannis residents feel a gaping void with the death of Sen. Kennedy, who went to church with them, fished alongside them, waved at them. 'He was a Capie,' one says. 'He loved this place.'

August 27, 2009|Elizabeth Mehren and Bob Drogin

HYANNIS, MASS. — Along the impossibly quaint Main Street of this Cape Cod village, shop windows carried signs Wednesday reading "Thanks Ted, We Miss You," and sales clerks concluded purchases by clutching the hands of teary-eyed customers.

Residents clustered under shade trees on the town common, trading tales of a beloved figure who, had death not claimed him, they said, would surely have been out on his 50-foot Concordia schooner, the Mya, savoring a perfect summer day.

At Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop, Mike Lyons made sure his daily list of instructions for his crew included "Directions to Compound" because he knew so many people would want to pay their respects to the family of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had died hours earlier of brain cancer.

"We're all talking about it, even the young people," said Lyons, 53, pressing handmade waffle cones as he spoke. "He was a genuine part of the community. He lived down the road. He went to our church, sat in the front pew."

The ripples of reaction encompassed not just the passing of the third-longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate, but the scion of a Massachusetts political dynasty. Few people alive in this state can remember a time when a Kennedy or a Fitzgerald, the family of Kennedy's late mother, Rose, did not dominate the state's political landscape.

And for the first time in anyone's memory, no member of the family stood ready as an heir apparent.

"When I got out of the service, the first guy I ever voted for was President Kennedy," said 73-year-old Sam Ricker, a cook at a local spot called Hot Diggety Dog. Although he sometimes disagreed with the political positions of the late president's youngest brother, Ricker said he carried his loyalty into 40-plus years of votes for Ted Kennedy.

One reason was respect. Kennedy fought hard in Washington on behalf of his state, he said. Another was a local tie: "He was a Capie," Ricker said. "He loved this place."

The large and boisterous Kennedy clan began converging on Cape Cod in the 1920s, drawn by the endless beaches and the easy, unpretentious atmosphere. The Hyannis area has a hardy year-round population of about 100,000, who dwell in houses divided between white clapboard structures, like those at the Kennedy compound, and shingled homes weathered gray by the hard winters.

Most important, according to Ricker, was Kennedy's ability to see beyond his aristocratic trappings and connect with regular people. For many years Ricker worked as a chef at an annual clambake that was a tradition at the Kennedy family compound in nearby Hyannis Port.

"He is the only politician I ever saw who came out and shook everybody's hand in the kitchen," Ricker remembered. "He didn't just thank one person. He thanked everyone."

Barricades closed off the roads leading to the vast mansions and tiny cottages that make up Hyannis Port. Only residents could pass into the area, so many people who wanted to remember the senator -- both locals and tourists -- gathered in front of the small John F. Kennedy Museum on Main Street here.

Karen Robart, a retired computer technician who was born and raised in Hyannis, said it was impossible to exaggerate the impact of Kennedy's death.

"It is the loss not only of the Kennedy family patriarch, but the patriarch of this town and this state," said Robart, 54. "Sen. Kennedy has been the strongest and most loved figure. It leaves a wide and empty space for us, because of the strength of his presence. We are left with almost a floundering feeling, as if 'who can we grasp on to next?' And there doesn't seem to be anyone."

As for Kennedy's tragic flaws -- such as his behavior after the drowning in 1969 of Mary Jo Kopechne in nearby Chappaquiddick -- Robart shrugged.

"We can all look in our own past and see what we were forgiven for," she said. "He paid. He just paid in a different way."

Fred Rivers, 65, a former police officer working as a security guard at the Hyannis Library, said that around the village, Kennedy's death felt deeply personal.

"I spent a lot of time with the Kennedys," he said. "I grew up with them. I knew Ted, I knew John John, I knew them all. When I was out fishing with my stepson, I used to see Ted out fishing with his sons."

Fran Fratus, 62, said the Kennedys represented a sense of continuity. "Everybody was family with him," said the Barnstable County custodian. "He was outspoken, standing up for the little guy, even though he had all those riches. He didn't have to put himself out there for the average guy, but he always did."

The prospect of Kennedy's death had loomed over his home state like a large leaden cloud since his cancer diagnosis 15 months ago. And although many people thought privately of life without him, it seemed no one talked openly about such a grim possibility.

"It was just too awful," said Lyons, the ice cream shop owner. "The thought of, 'Oh my God, there might not be a Kennedy around.' "

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