Blog #8 Ted Kennedy Came to My Grad

In May 1964, Commencement Day at Saint Dunstan’s University, a small Catholic institution in Charlottetown, PEI, Canada, became a little more exciting as the procession of grads, staff, and honorees climbed the steps to enter the hall for the ceremonies. A glance over the shoulders of the seventy plus graduates caught the gleaming smiles of young Senator Ted Kennedy as he responded to the adoring crowds. He was there to receive an honorary doctorate and to address the graduates.

His address highlighted why he was so willing to join the Class of ’64 in its celebrations. First, he outlined the historic connection between PEI and New England that went back to 1900. As a Senator with political blood in his veins, he knew his constituents well. The Speaker of the House of Representatives was John McCormack, born in Souris, PEI. He knew also of the migration of Maritimers for generations to the Boston States, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or simply Massachusetts. He commented on his delight to learn that nearly 25% of SDU’s enrollment that year was American. (Primarily students from Maine but some from Massachusetts and other states as well.) Second, Senator Kennedy reminded his audience that President Kennedy had been unable to accept his invitation to come to SDU when he had been Senator. Ted Kennedy was there to fulfil a wish his brother had before higher office called him to serve as President of United States. Third, he welcomed the opportunity to speak to Canadian audiences to thank them in a public way for the condolences and prayers they had extended when the Kennedy family and the American people attempted to cope with the assassination of the President a few months before.

History has shown that Ted Kennedy was a remarkably engaging public speaker throughout his career from his time as a thirty-year-old new Senator to his final year as the third longest-serving Senator in American history.

Meeting Senator Kennedy offered insight into why he became such a successful politician in his forty-seven years as a Senator. In time, we learned that he had vision, communication skills, determination, wit and humour, a passion to serve, and an understanding of the power of compromise. He had human frailties and endless charm. But what I learned personally, from my encounter with Ted Kennedy in May 1964, was that he possessed a compelling quality to be a careful listener with a caring way with others he had just met.

After the commencement, the honorees met with senior staff and the senior class executive in a small reception. The Senator was introduced to about fifteen people. I was one. As photographs were being taken, he said, “What are your plans for next year, John?” I responded that I was accepted at graduate school for an MA in English.” As I was answering, I could see my mother (on crutches and recovering from a broken ankle) was now in the room and I gave a subtle wave to a beaming, proud mother. Senator Kennedy turned to me and said, “Is that your mother?” I replied that it was. The careful listener and caring person spoke above the chattering crowd, “Mrs. Dunphy, would you join us for the next photo.” Now how could any person listen to names when introduced to numerous people and recall them at will within minutes without prompting? Only a special politician.

All of you would recognize the handsome young Senator and the woman in crutches in the photograph in my office. I am the one in the cap and gown.