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Thousands pay respects to Kennedy at public viewing in Boston

A niece of the late senator greets and thanks members of the public -- an estimated 50,000 -- who file past the coffin. An invitation-only celebration of his life is scheduled for the evening.

August 29, 2009|Bob Drogin

BOSTON — The late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was hailed Friday night as a loving father, tireless friend and compassionate leader during an emotional ceremony of remembrance that mixed joyful tales with tears of mourning.

There was a moving rendition of "The Impossible Dream," a tribute film by director Ken Burns and the revelation that Kennedy once performed as a hip-swiveling Elvis at a staff Christmas party.

"He was awful, in my opinion," joked Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the conservative Utah Republican and teetotaling Mormon who nonetheless became a close friend and frequent political ally of the hard-living, Irish Catholic liberal icon.

"He always used to say that if he and I were on the same bill, it was obvious that one of us hadn't read it," Hatch said with a laugh.

One after another, Senate colleagues, friends he sailed with, friends he fought with, and most of all, friends and family whom he loved and who loved him back stood for three hours before the flag-draped coffin to share memories about the last patriarch of the Kennedy clan.

"He'd always remind us that the older we get, the better we were," joked Paul G. Kirk Jr., a former aide who is on the board of directors of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, where the memorial service was held.

Vice President Joe Biden said Kennedy had encouraged him to run for office and urged him on at every turn and through every crisis.

"I never saw him petty," Biden said. "I never saw him act in a small way. As a consequence, he made us all bigger, both his allies and foes."

Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, eldest son of the slain Robert F. Kennedy, spoke of how "Uncle Teddy" had helped raise his nephews and nieces after the assassination.

"Every single one of my brothers and sisters needed a father, and we gained one with Uncle Teddy," he said. "He had such a big heart. And he shared that big heart with all of us."

Caroline Kennedy, daughter of President Kennedy, said her uncle delighted in organizing family trips to share his passion for history and understanding of sacrifice. He led the children on visits to the monuments of Washington, and to Civil War and Revolutionary War battlefields.

Once, she said, he took them camping in the dead of summer on an island that was covered in mosquitoes.

"We figured Teddy was trying to teach us something, but after a boiling-hot day with 20 children under 10, we weren't sure what," she recalled. The next morning, they discovered he had sneaked off on a boat and spent the night in a five-star hotel in Boston.

He had a "ferocious sense of humor," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). Dodd said Kennedy especially enjoyed in his final months how political opponents who "abhorred his politics were saying the nicest things about him."

"John Kennedy inspired our America," Dodd said. "Robert challenged our America. Our Teddy changed America."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said he and the pugnacious Massachusetts Democrat shared the same political philosophy -- full-throated debate, give-no-quarter battles and drinks all around afterward.

"He was a fierce advocate, and no senator would oppose him in debate without a little trepidation," McCain said. "Actually, quite a lot of trepidation."

Kennedy, McCain said, "was the most reliable, the most prepared and the most persistent member of the Senate. He took the long view, and he never gave up."

Behind the speakers, through the huge windows of the high-ceilinged room, a soft dusky light turned to inky black over the waters of Dorchester Bay. In the audience sat Kennedy's widow, Victoria, other family members and a galaxy of national and state political leaders, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, Kennedy's niece. About 500 people filled the hall.

Kennedy died Tuesday evening at age 77 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer, and tributes have come from around the world. His body has lain in repose at the library since Thursday afternoon. The public was invited to pay respects and tens of thousands did so.

By the time the public viewing closed Friday afternoon, police said up to 50,000 people had lined up, some waiting for up to four hours.

"The turnout, the love, has been phenomenal," said Kym Smith, another Kennedy niece. She and other family members took turns greeting and thanking the mourners.

Everyone in line, it seemed, had a story to tell, a memory to share about America's third-longest-serving senator.

Jamleck Wairimu, 33, a Kenyan, brought his freshly issued U.S. immigration papers to illustrate how Kennedy had helped him find a new life as a student in America.

Helen Gibbons brought 13-year-old daughter Ruby, who won a science fair several years ago and met Kennedy at the awards ceremony.

Inside the library, five young girls from Kennedy's extended family prayed on their knees at one point beside the casket, their blond and brown heads just visible over the top.

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bob.drogin@latimes.com

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