Commentary: Remembering Ted Kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, 1932-2009 Chuck Kennedy / MCT

One thing I will remember about the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and will appreciate him for is how he overcame the arrogance of wealth.

Despite his numerous servants and the luxury of owning a sailboat or two, Ted Kennedy understood the needs of blue-collar workers, of the poor and of the disenfranchised.

Eula Hall, founder of Mud Creek Clinic in Gethel, shares my sentiment about the senator, who died Wednesday after serving 47 years in the U.S. Senate. She met Kennedy when he visited Floyd and Letcher counties in 1983. Kentucky was Kennedy's final stop on a seven-day survey of hunger in America.

"I gave him the tour," said Hall, widely recognized as a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged in Eastern Kentucky. "I loved him and thought he was a real down-to-earth and very caring person."

They visited families and the clinic while he was there, Hall said. The relationship forged that day continued throughout the years.

When she went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for coal miners and others in Eastern Kentucky, Hall would stop by Kennedy's office and talk with him or a staffer.

"I always considered him someone we could count on to stand up for the poor," Hall said.

Wednesday morning, Hall sat for two hours with her scrapbook, picture album, memories and tears as she recalled her meetings with Kennedy. She re-read letters he had written to her, which triggered memories of phone calls he had made to her after his visit in 1983.

There was a copy of a $200 check from his foundation, which she said was meant to help pay for food and turkeys for families during the holidays.

"He sent more than one, but I don't have copies of them," she said. "He told me to go to get turkeys and food at Christmas. He didn't ask for any publicity. It was just between me and him."

At 81, Hall still works at the clinic she founded in 1973 as a community clinic, supported initially by the United Mine Workers Union. She serves as a patient advocate, finding food, transportation, counseling and whatever else patients need to improve their lives.

The clinic, in rural Floyd County, was destroyed by fire in 1982, but Hall helped raise enough money to open a new clinic two years later. When Kennedy visited the area in 1983, the clinic was housed in a trailer while the new facility was being built. Hall gave him a tour, nonetheless.

The activist and the senator shared a vision of providing affordable health care. Kennedy declared at the 2008 Democratic Convention that health care is the "cause of my lifetime."

Now that Kennedy has passed, Hall said she will bend the ear of anyone in Washington who will listen. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is aware of her work and has praised it, she said.

"I'll just have to look to whoever is there who will listen to the problems we have," she said. "You never know till you talk to them and let them know what's not right. Kennedy was one person you could talk to. He is going to be missed."

I agree.

Kennedy didn't need the assurances of a minimum wage to make ends meet, yet he fought hard to give it to others. He didn't need a better public education for his children, but he worked with President George W. Bush to give it to my kids and yours through the No Child Left Behind Act.

That same selflessness was true for his work with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Kennedy-Hatch Law of 1997, which provided health care for uninsured children.

Kennedy could have lived a full life without any of those bills, but he knew we couldn't.

Hall said she kept up with his recent brain cancer diagnosis as much as she could through the media.

"I was saddened to hear he wouldn't live long," she said. "He was a great person for our country. He looked at things that touched the lives of so many disadvantaged people."

Ted Kennedy didn't have to do that.

As a former single mother, as a black person, and as someone who might need to take time from work to care for ailing loved ones, I am so glad he did.

And I plan to remember him for that.