Ethel Kennedy still the pillar of strength for her family

Ethel Kennedy still the pillar of strength for her family

A few things to know about dinner with Ethel Kennedy: First, don't be late.

Be prepared to answer questions. And for goodness sake don't say anything nice about Richard Nixon.

One of Chris Kennedy's in-laws learned that the hard way.

Years ago, Thomas Reynolds — then-head of the powerful Winston and Strawn law firm in Chicago and campaign chairman for former Gov. James Thompson — was invited to dinner by his niece, Sheila, and her husband, Chris Kennedy.

Ethel Kennedy was there, too, and the conversation naturally turned to politics. Reynolds mentioned that he felt history had misrepresented President Nixon.

"At which point my mother threw a glass of red wine on him," Chris Kennedy recalled. "He wildly misjudged his audience."

Reynolds just "took it," he said. "He knew where he was."

Kennedy, chairman of the UI Board of Trustees, shared a few reflections about one of America's most famous moms in honor of Mother's Day.

There's a lot to tell. Ethel Kennedy has always been a force, he said, focused, funny, inquisitive and full of energy.

At age 86, she still reads three or four newspapers a day, three books a week, and watches the news in the morning and evening. She winters in Palm Beach, Fla., then returns to Cape Cod for the summer. And she still likes to entertain and find out all about her guests.

"Have you ever been deposed? Sitting next to her at dinner is like a deposition," Chris Kennedy said. "Super bright, and very engaging. She's not standoffish at all, and has boundless energy. She's great fun."

"Ethel," a 2012 HBO documentary by her youngest daughter, shared similar stories about a woman one review described as "one of those big family moms you are half scared of and half drawn to when you're a kid who is now a bristly grandmother who can still halt an inappropriate question with the flash of an eye."

Ethel Skakel Kennedy was born April 11, 1928, in Chicago, the sixth of seven children born to George Skakel, a Chicago businessman, and his wife Ann. The family moved to Connecticut when she was a young child. She met Robert F. Kennedy on a ski trip via a college friend. They married in 1950 and eventually settled in the Washington, D.C., area, living at Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., as Robert Kennedy began his government and political career.

Growing up a Kennedy

The Kennedy children were aware of their family's wealth and power, of course, but "both of those were dwarfed by the notion of being part of a much larger family," said Chris Kennedy, who is now 50.

Robert and Ethel Kennedy had 11 children together, one of whom, Rory, was born after the senator was assassinated in 1968. And of course, there were more cousins in the Kennedy clan. In fact, Chris and his siblings called her "Mummy" because "that made it easier when there were 15 of us calling for our moms in public."

"Being part of that larger group really kept everybody's ego in check," Chris Kennedy said. "It's hard to feel famous when you are struggling to get noticed at the dining room table.

"I remember when I went away to college, she was still in Cape Cod and I returned for Labor Day weekend, she said, 'Have you been gone all week?' "

About those dinners ...

"She was super disciplined," he said. "And so dinner started at 7 o'clock and no one was late. Hair brushed and fingernails clean, 100 percent of the time. That continues on. Dinner's at 7 and that's that. One drink beforehand and then you go in, which was really my grandfather's view. ... No one leaves the table without asking to be excused, even the little kids.

"The power of that routine and that celebration of that dinner was really important to our family. It kept all of us together."

What if they were late? Chris Kennedy still shudders at the lectures about being unfair to the other people at the table who had shown up on time, and disrespectful to the staff who had prepared the meal and had to stay and clean up afterward.

"That's not who we are," she would tell her children.

"My kids are on time," Chris Kennedy said.

Active parenting

Ethel Kennedy had high standards for her children — and their friends. Kids who came by the house to trick-or-treat on Halloween were surprised to find they had to sing a song before getting any candy.

"I think everyone was sort of in awe of her. She's not a scary person. But she's got high energy and high expectations," Chris Kennedy said.

An avid athlete herself, Ethel Kennedy wanted her children involved in activities — though the Kennedys' activities were on a different level from most American families.

When they went skiing, they'd head out to the mountain early in the day and stay until the lifts closed. During the summers, she'd play several rounds of tennis in the morning, then take the kids out sailing every day at 12:30 p.m.

One of his painful memories is being forced to play tennis against George Plimpton, a journalist, amateur athlete and accomplished tennis player. Chris was 14, and his two younger brothers were 10 and 12. It was 100 degrees.

"At that point in our lives we all hated tennis. We got through the first set and he said, 'Let's play another,' and we all burst out crying."

The Skipper and Sammy Davis Jr.

Family sailing excursions were legendary. Ethel Kennedy was the captain of the ship, no question, and would cram 15 people onto the family's 26-foot sailboat, with about 4 inches of clearance between them and the water.

One trip when Chris was about 12 was particularly memorable.

"I remember Sammy Davis Jr. going down below because he was so scared. She refused to go back into shore until he sang 'Candy Man' to all the children — which for a while he refused to do until he realized his life was in the balance," Chris Kennedy recalled. "His crying wife convinced him to belt one out for the crowd."

On another trip, a dean at Brown University who couldn't swim fell off the boat. Chris' brother dove in and dragged him back to the boat but, as he was rather large, it was going to take the group to haul him aboard. Before that could happen, Ethel Kennedy said, "Can my children have on-campus housing?"

Coping with loss

Despite a life of privilege, Ethel Kennedy is no stranger to tragedy. Her parents were killed in a plane crash in 1955. Besides her husband, she lost two children — Michael in a skiing accident in 1997 and David from a drug overdose in 1984 — and the family has had its share of legal troubles.

Many older Americans remember black-and-white images of a grieving widow in 1968, but life didn't stop there.

"In part, the realities of the present made the burdens of the past less important," Chris Kennedy said. "After my father died, she still had 10 kids and one on the way. What are you going to do, spend your whole time grieving? You've got to get out of bed. People have to get to school in the morning and get picked up in the afternoon. They're playing on sports teams and during the summer they have these activities."

One thing she did was fill her kids' lives with men they could look up to — friends like Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson and Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Mt. Everest. They took the kids rafting and mountain-climbing and camping and everything their father might have done.

"Jim would come out to Cape Cod and play football," Kennedy said. "He said when he left Hyannis Port he always looked forward to relaxing on a mountain climb, because it was easier than three days at the Cape.

"That was a big part of how she chose friends to be a part of her life. And she did that in a manner that she thought would influence each of us."

Careers and politics

Ethel Kennedy never discouraged her children from going into public office, "but she also never encouraged anybody," said Chris Kennedy, who considered a Senate run in 2009 and has helped with other Kennedy campaigns.

"I think she had the great awareness that we were all individuals who needed to find ourselves and then our careers ... not impose from the outside the notion of what we should be good at or what we should get into in our lives," he said.

However, she didn't mind using her children to influence each other. When Chris was young, they hung above his bed a photo of Chicago's Merchandise Mart, which the family had owned for years, with the idea that he should move to Chicago and run it when he grew up. Chris Kennedy was president of Merchandise Mart Properties for 12 years until he started a nonprofit company, Top Box Foods, in 2012.

"I had never seen it, but I had this gold-framed black-and-white photo of the Merchandise Mart," he said. "It was pretty direct."

Top Box, which provides discounted produce and other groceries to families who live in areas without grocery stores, distributes food through some of the same churches that his mother's family attended years ago in south Chicago.

'Focused on the future'

Chris Kennedy won't be with his mom today but said he talks to her by phone almost every day. Mostly, he said, she gives him trouble about the Chicago winters, as "she had the good sense to leave the Chicago weather when she was 5."

Growing up, Mother's Day at the Kennedy house always meant planting pink geraniums in an enormous planter every year. "That was what she wanted," he said.

Asked about Ethel Kennedy's biggest influence on him, Chris Kennedy mentioned a Janis Joplin song he used to hear on the jukebox by the swimming pool at home called "Bobby McGee," which contained the line, "I'd trade all of my tomorrows for a handful of yesterdays."

"My mother absolutely never believed that. She always focused on the future and what's next, what we could do," he said.

"I think that saved us all. If we had been mired in the past, rather than what we could achieve in our own lives and our own children's futures, I think it would have turned out very differently, and very badly."

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UrbanaJake wrote on May 11, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Happy Mother's Day to one and all.

Verum wrote on May 12, 2014 at 3:05 am

As one of those "older" Americans I can assure readers that by 1968 the tv coverage of Senator Kennedy's funeral was in color. Perhaps the reporter is confusing the black and white coverage of a grieving Jacqueline Kennedy with that of a grieving Ethel Kennedy. Those were sad times, indeed. How different our country would have been if both President Kennedy and Senator Kennedy had not been brutally murdered.