The Kennedys’ visit to American history

During the memorial service for Senator Edward Kennedy last month, several speakers mentioned his love of American history and his son, Ted, Jr. noted that his father was “a civil war buff” who sponsored vacations that left the family, in some cases, “injured and exhausted.” In 2006, I was privileged to provide background for one of these tours when the Kennedy clan visited the National Museum of American History in preparation for an all-day visit to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

Image_1_1544 Senator Kennedy wanted me to give the family a tour of The Price of Freedom: Americans at War exhibition, especially the section on the causes of the Civil War. I recall his enthusiasm and his interest in the exhibition. I also recall how difficult it was for me to keep the group together since this was a reunion and there was much family business that needed to be conducted. Only when I invited one of the Kennedy grandchildren to read the text of John Brown’s final words before his execution did the senator intervene and commanded everyone to pay attention. (For you docents and tour guides reading this blog, remember that everyone seems to listen more carefully if a child is delivering the message.)

As he left the museum, Senator Kennedy noted our maritime history gallery and said he wanted to come back and see our ship model collection. I told him about our plans to rebuild this gallery with a new exhibition and he was very supportive. His love of boats and the sea was another theme in the tributes offered by family and friends and I am sorry he was not able to join us when we opened the On the Water: Stories of Maritime America exhibition in May of this year.

Senator Kennedy’s 46-year career in the Senate (he was the third longest-serving member in U.S. history) included contributions to the Hart-Celler Act (1965), Title IX (1972), Americans With Disabilities Act (1990), and Kennedy-Kassebaum Bill (1996). It was an honor to share a walk through American history with a man who made such a significant impact on our nation’s political heritage.

I should also note that at the end of their visit, I took the opportunity to thank Eunice Kennedy Shriver for her remarkable leadership and efforts on behalf of people with disabilities. I told her that my son and many other children really benefitted from programs she established. A few months later, I attended a fund raising event at her home. When I introduced myself, she said immediately, “Oh yes, you have a child with special needs.” I have never forgotten the fact that she recalled our brief conversation earlier that year. Her impact on American history was very significant and I am so pleased that, at the time of her death this summer, she received the recognition she richly deserved.

Brent D. Glass is Director of the National Museum of American History.