Victoria Kennedy focuses on preserving a legacy

Breaks ground for Edward M. Kennedy Institute today

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By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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After Senator Edward M. Kennedy died in August 2009, one of the most wrenching tasks for his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, was dismantling his office on Capitol Hill.

As much history museum as workspace, the office was full of family and political mementos, including a letter hanging on the wall from a 14-year-old John F. Kennedy to his mother, Rose. In it, the future president asked if he could be godfather to the family’s final child, whom they would call Teddy.

One by one, Vicki Kennedy packed up each item and tucked away the memories attached to it.

Within the next three years, she plans to hang that letter up again, this time in a replica of her husband’s office that will be part of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.

“It was such a special thing, to go into that office and see that history on the wall and to just feel, really, the magic of that, and so we are going to re-create that,’’ she said during an interview Wednesday.

Today, Kennedy will gather with about 500 people — including family members, former staff members, and several current and former US senators — to ceremonially break ground on the $60 million educational center, whose planning began well before the senator’s death. It will be built, starting late this summer, on Columbia Point, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Vicki Kennedy called the timing of the ceremony “a bit ironic,’’ coming at the end of a week when a partisan debate in Washington has brought the country to the brink of a government shutdown.

“But in another way, it’s a teaching moment, I think,’’ she said.

In fact, Kennedy said she wished today’s ceremony were the institute’s opening ribbon-cutting, rather than its construction groundbreaking.

That way, the public could go inside, learn about previous government shutdowns, and assess the wisdom of the current dispute.

“That’s what Teddy envisioned; that’s what he would have hoped,’’ she said, sitting in the director’s office of the JFK Library, the wind whipping Dorchester Bay in the background. “He was always about the future, and he was always about history illuminating the path for the future.’’

Kennedy smiled broadly during the 20-minute interview, one of several she gave before the groundbreaking and an institute fund-raiser last night at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel. It was projected to raise $1.2 million .

She acknowledged “it’s a journey’’ coping with the loss of her husband, but added: “I’m loving this passionate cause of mine.’’

Kennedy also smiled when asked about criticism of the federal universal health care program that was her husband’s chief legislative focus until his death. President Obama signed it a year ago, but now about half the states are suing to dismantle it.

“I always hesitate to say what Teddy would think about anything or to put words in his mouth, but I do have an image of him,’’ she said.

In her mind’s eye, Kennedy sees her husband standing on the Senate floor, next to charts on easels, “bellowing’’ about how the law already helps people of all stripes and stations in life.

“How I miss that voice explaining it, and I believe, as all these other items come on line as time goes forward, I don’t think we’re going to be turning back the clock on health care,’’ she said. “We waited too long for it.’’

Kennedy refused to criticize former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who negotiated a state universal health care law with her husband that ultimately became a model for the federal law Obama signed last year. Romney signed the state law five years ago this coming Tuesday.

Now, as he plans a second campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney routinely lambastes “Obamacare’’ and says states, not the federal government, should be left to develop their own insurance programs.

“I think all that’s just politics; I don’t even pay attention to that,’’ Kennedy said.

“I was so proud to be here, at Faneuil Hall, with Teddy the day of the signing of that bill, and it was so great to see people of both parties and business and insurance companies coming together,’’ she said.

She also sidestepped questions about her view of Republican Scott Brown, who replaced her husband in the Senate last year. Nonetheless, she said she is confident the Democratic Party will field a worthy challenger when Brown seeks his first full term in 2012. Kennedy has ruled out being a candidate herself.

“It’s still early, and I think we have quite a few people who are interested, and some very good candidates who are interested,’’ she said.

Besides more than 500 family members and former staff members, the groundbreaking is expected to attract Senator Daniel Inouye, a Democrat from Hawaii who was in the chamber when Edward Kennedy delivered his maiden Senate speech 47 years ago Saturday. It focused on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Brown and the state’s senior senator, Democrat John F. Kerry, were also scheduled to attend, as was Republican Edward W. Brooke III, the former senator.

Kennedy was not told of the idea for the office replica. But since 2002, he had been consumed with the institute’s broader focus: educating the public about civic engagement in general and his beloved Senate in particular.

That will be achieved in a 40,000-square-foot structure designed by Rafael Vinoly, who created the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and gave the new South Boston landmark its signature prow.

The centerpiece will be what designers are calling a representation, rather than an exact recreation of the Senate chamber. In this high-tech version, visitors will be able to tap on the 100 desktops — arranged in the traditional semicircle — and see videos about the senators who have sat at each, their backgrounds, and their accomplishments.

The institute will also become the repository for the oral history project that Kennedy spent years working on with the University of Virginia and will include classrooms and lecture spaces brimming with the latest technology.

Visitors, for example, will receive a finger-sized memory stick allowing them to personalize their experience and then take the results home, where they can plug it into a computer and continue their education.

Last night’s fund-raising event underscored the continuing effort to pay the $125 million tab for both constructing the institute and endowing its operations. About $60 million in cash and pledges have already come through a private campaign led by Boston advertising executive Jack Connors Jr.

The federal government is kicking in $38 million in grants, but efforts to add $20 million more from a defense bill and another $8 million through an earmark were defeated amid complaints of pork-barrel spending.

Her husband’s hand-picked president for the institute, Peter Meade, announced in February that he was stepping down. He will soon become director of the Redevelopment Authority.

Kennedy denied talk of turmoil at the institute or of a rift between her and Meade.

“It’s like, how do you disprove a negative?’’ she said. “There’s no friction. Peter’s terrific. He did a great job.’’

While construction on the institute cannot begin until lingering permit issues are resolved, Kennedy and the others will participate in a traditional dirt-toss at the conclusion of tomorrow’s ceremony.

“I’m going to be exhilarated,’’ she said as she pondered stepping down on her shovel. “I’m going to say, you know, ‘Teddy, we’re getting there.’ It’s a very important step.’’

Glenn Johnson can be reached at