A Small Gesture Goes a Long Way

By Gabriel Schneider
Published: September 2009

Ted Kennedy, known for his work in the Senate as well as for his prominent family name, was a personable, trustworthy and articulate man whose larger-than-life traits led him to prominence in the Senate for over four decades.

Regardless of his high esteem in government, however, Kennedy always found time to reach out to common people’€even if only in the smallest of ways.

Kennedy became well known for his unyielding decency and humility, regardless of his popularity for the upcoming election. Donald and Erika Stern, Newton residents and parents of former Denebola Editor-in-Chief Ben Stern, both knew Kennedy as a man who was always willing to go out of his way for a small gesture of acknowledgment or a simple note.
While neither Donald nor Erika Stern knew or worked with Kennedy closely enough to call him a colleague, he always showed them the utmost kindness and respect.
Erika Stern got to know Kennedy during her career as the first director of the Profile in Courage Award at the John F. Kennedy Library. When she was a finalist nominee for the position at the JFK Library, Kennedy insisted on meeting individually with each candidate.

So, one afternoon in Copley Square, Erika sat down with Kennedy for tea. “It was so comfortable, she said. “He was genuinely interested in what I had to say.

The John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award is considered the nation’s most prestigious honor for elected public servants who demonstrate an outstanding quality of political courage. Erika recalls Kennedy’s enthusiasm about the emergence of this particular award: “This piece of his family history and this particular award meant so much to him.

“He had the ability to be passionate about his policies but he knew when to compromise.
‘€Donald Stern

During her time at the JFK Library, Erika caught a glimpse into the life of the Senator through her own work with him.

“He cared a lot about his staff, she said.

“It always amazed me, his broad capacity for handling all those things swirling around in the legislative world and then still dedicating time to the library.

In addition, Erika admired Kennedy’s insatiable desire to continue his education about the legislative process.

Even during his tenure as Senator, Kennedy would attend meetings with scholars, journalists and other legislators to master various esoteric legal opportunities to help him pass legislation.

“His success was in part his legislative knowledge as it was his incredible relations with people in the Senate to find common ground and work across party lines, Erika said.

Most touching, however, was Kennedy’s genuine gratitude to those on his staff. After Erika oversaw the first Profile in Courage Award, she received a letter from Kennedy in thanks. Less than a week later, however, she unexpectedly received another letter from Kennedy in the mail’€apologizing for not signing the original letter himself. He enclosed another letter with an authentic signature.

“I would have never known the difference, Erika said, “and that’s the measure of a really decent person. He was a real mensch who wanted things done right.
Kennedy simply never needed public praise or media attention to guide his actions.

“With Ted Kennedy, it wasn’t about the ‘Ëœvote for me’ mentality, Erika said, “He was a man who deeply cared about the welfare of the people he served, she said.

Erika’s husband Donald Stern, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts from 1993 to 2001, admits that he had only met Kennedy “once or twice. Yet while working in the public sector, Donald came in contact with Kennedy various times during his career.

Kennedy played a role in Donald’s appointment as U.S. attorney and was also present when Donald was sworn in to office.

Like Erika, Donald received “one of those famous notes with a pendant at the bottom and a signature, when his father died about two years ago.

“He didn’t have to do it, Donald said, “and what was most touching was that it didn’t have to be big or important or anything.

Donald recognizes Kennedy’s work as monumental in a time when passion rarely sculpts policy.

“He really is irreplaceable. His ability to combine his passion with his job was really unique, Donald said. “I don’t think anybody can combine those traits like Kennedy did. He had the ability to be passionate about his policies but he knew when to compromise.

With Kennedy’s passing comes the important realization that great politicians are hard to come by.

Kennedy was able to combine his passion with his intellect, his affability with his humor, and his thoughtfulness with his humility to establish himself as an effective legislator and a great man.

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