In the two weeks since his passing, much has been said in honor of Senator Edward Moore Kennedy of Massachusetts. During his 50 years of public service, Senator Kennedy fought tirelessly on behalf of those without a voice in politics, championing higher minimum wage laws, safer workplaces, equal voting rights, and universal health care.
In his 2008 Wesleyan Commencement Address, President Obama spoke on behalf of the “Lion of the Senate,” calling upon recent graduates to follow Senator Kennedy’s example.
“It is rare in this country of ours that a person exists who has touched the lives of nearly every single American without many of us even realizing it,” Barack Obama, the then-presidential candidate from Illinois, boomed to a crowd of University graduates, parents, and professors. “…Surely, if his service and his story can forever shape America’s story, then our collective service can shape the destiny of this generation.”
Although Senator Kennedy’s legislative accomplishments are well known, his close connection to Wesleyan has been less publicized. Before he was asked to speak at the University’s 2008 Commencement, Senator Kennedy received an honorary degree from Wesleyan in 1984. Not coincidentally, his oldest son, Ted Kennedy, Jr. ’84, graduated from the University that year, as well, and his stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin ’08, graduated just two years ago.
In 1979, just a few weeks after announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Senator Kennedy visited his son—then a freshman—during Parents’ Weekend. The visit, however, snowballed into a media spectacle, as The Hartford Courant, The Middletown Press, and The Wesleyan Argus reported at the time. Busloads of secret service agents, reporters, and politicians followed the presidential hopeful onto campus and surrounded him and his son while the rest of the University looked on in disbelief.
“Most of us were a little embarrassed as we huddled in front of South College…experiencing the spectacle of a national media event, created, staged, and unraveled before our small-town eyes,” wrote an Argus staff writer at the time. “…and—somewhere in the middle of it all—the strangely unperturbed figure of Ted Kennedy, striding purposefully through the crowd as if it were all part of Parent’s Day.”
Four years later, the Senior Senator from Mass. set foot on the Wesleyan campus once again. For his compassion and principled service, the University presented Kennedy with an honorary doctor of laws degree, while the younger Kennedy graduated with a B.A. in American Studies.
“Edward Moore Kennedy, you are living proof that education is indeed a life-long process,” wrote the University’s President, Colin Campbell, in 1984. “…Few public officials have such fruitful links with the intellectual community, and fewer still such obvious devotion to educational opportunity for all our people.”
In Senator Kennedy’s memory, President Michael Roth shared similar thoughts in a recent entry on The Huffington Post. In a nod to President Obama’s Commencement Address, Roth’s tribute to Senator Kennedy touched on similar themes of public service.
“His vision of justice was tied to a commitment to mitigate the cruel effects of economic inequality and entrenched power without unduly compromising economic growth and individual freedom,” Roth wrote. “His support of education as a vehicle for the creation of opportunity has inspired countless students and teachers. He had the courage to maintain his beliefs and to find ways, even in dark times, to make progress.”
The University embodied many of Senator Kennedy’s own principles, as well as those of his family. His legacy rubbed off on his son, as well as his stepdaughter, Caroline Raclin ’08, who applied early decision to Wesleyan.
“Wesleyan is all about public service, and Ted has always been about public service,” Raclin said in an interview with The Argus. “The vibe of the school is all about helping people. It was the influence of Ted, and growing up in that family.”
Raclin recalled how her stepfather was ecstatic to hear that she had been accepted to Wesleyan. According to Raclin, he began reminiscing about all the trouble that Teddy [Jr.] used to get into when he was a student here.
She added that Senator Kennedy’s call to public service lives on—in his family, the University community, and across the country.
“No matter what people think of his beliefs or what happened to him, he was all about helping other people,” Raclin said. “That was the main driving principle of his life.”