BOSTON — Judy Blackiemore remembered when Ted Kennedy spoke to her high school in Lynn, Mass., in 1974.
"I feel like I've lost a family member," she said.
Jacky Jacqueline recalled how Kennedy had helped her raise money for an implant to improve her hearing.
"He was a senator of the people," she said.
Hyacinth Mason, who grew up in Chicago in a home with photos of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on the walls, tried to explain Ted Kennedy's importance to her children — Title IX, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start. Then she put them in the car and drove here from Albany, N.Y., just to "go say thank you."
When they approached Kennedy's flag-draped casket, lying in repose at his brother's presidential library, her 8-year-old son, George, took off his hat.
"That's how I know he got it," she said.
Thousands of people filed past Kennedy's casket Friday as it lay in repose at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, in a solemn show of respect for the veteran senator, who died Tuesday at 77 after a 15-month battle with brain cancer.
As morning clouds gave way to bright mid-day heat, many shared stories of brief but cherished encounters with Kennedy and of how he had improved their lives. Others talked more broadly of how he had improved America or inspired people worldwide.
"He always pushed for the underdog, for the people without insurance, for those making minimum wage, for minorities who needed education, the underprivileged," said Peter Loughran, 55, an Irish-American insurance underwriter from Salem, Mass., who took the morning off to attend the wake. "We won't have another guy with the same breadth and depth again."
For all the solemnity, the mood was casual. Some dressed in black; but others chose Red Sox T-shirts. Many offered to take photos of fellow mourners with Boston Harbor in the background.
Kennedy's family members, including his daughter Kara Kennedy and his nephew Tim Shriver, shook the hands of supporters and thanked them for being there. His niece Kym Smith burst into tears when a woman from the line embraced her.
Marta Eshetu remembered studying the Kennedy family while growing up in Ethiopia. When she moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1984 and had trouble with her immigration paperwork, she went to Kennedy's office for help. She cried when she heard that he'd died.
"But I'm so happy to come here to say goodbye," she said.
The connections to the Kennedy mystique were many. Carol Meuse, now 51, recalled how her family still talks about the time John F. Kennedy patted her on the head when she was a baby in Wakefield, Mass.
Sen. Kennedy "could have stayed in Hyannis Port sailing and drinking martinis. Instead, he dedicated his life to public service," Meuse said. "He represented all that is good and right."
For those who worked with him closely, like Massachusetts legislator Harriet Stanley, life without him seems unimaginable. Stanley herself was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001 and underwent surgery that was ultimately successful.
When she called Kennedy last spring to express her sympathy for his condition, he replied, "Well, we'll just carry on." That was typical Kennedy, she said.
"He somehow reached countless people," said Steve Dooner, 44, whose father always received personal responses to the letters he wrote to Kennedy over the years. "It is hard to believe he was only one person."
(Spring is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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