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Kennedy Family, Friends Say Farewell to Michael

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She raced to the hearse as it pulled up to Our Lady of Victory Church just after 10 a.m. Saturday and opened the vehicle’s back door. For a moment, it was as if 29-year-old Rory Kennedy planned single-handedly to carry her brother Michael’s heavy mahogany coffin into the gray and white church where, for years, the Kennedy family has worshiped in the happy days of summer.

But just as swiftly, the youngest of Robert F. and Ethel Kennedy’s nine surviving children was joined by her brothers and sisters. In a gesture hauntingly evocative of four decades of public-private Kennedy funerals, they formed a family phalanx around the brother who died New Year’s Eve at age 39 while playing a risky game of touch football on skis. Michael L. Kennedy’s death in Aspen, Colo., ended a life marked by accomplishment in business and human rights but marred in its final year by a sordid sex scandal that brought shame to a clan known equally for triumph, tragedy and transgression.

“A whole nation knows his name,” Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II--at 46, the oldest brother--said in his eulogy. “But few know the best of what he did. Michael was one man. But he was 100 points of light.”

Another brother, 43-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Jr.--who was with Michael when he died and who himself overcame heroin addiction--also eulogized the family’s middle child. Maxwell Kennedy, 33, also joined in the fatal football frolic in Aspen, and on Saturday he read Scripture for Michael.

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Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, 47, and Rory, a documentary filmmaker, also read from the Bible.

Chartered buses and limousines snaked through narrow, congested streets to bring relatives to a church still decorated with Christmas wreaths.

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Ethel Kennedy--widow of the former senator, attorney general and Democratic presidential aspirant--entered alongside the latest Kennedy widow, Victoria Gifford Kennedy. After 16 years of marriage, Michael and Vicki Kennedy had been separated for months, after it was disclosed that Michael conducted a multiyear liaison with their children’s teenage baby sitter.

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With 11 children, Ethel Kennedy assigned each of the “older” offspring to be an honorary godparent to a younger child. Michael was chosen as godparent to Rory, born after their father was assassinated in Los Angeles in 1968, and named in his memory. In Aspen on New Year’s Eve, it was Rory who dropped to her knees in the snow and gave her brother mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Friends said Rory and Michael spoke almost every day of their lives.

The same was said to be true of Michael Kennedy and his mother. At a crowded, private wake Friday evening at the family compound in nearby Hyannisport, Ethel Kennedy was described as both stoic and shaken. “I’ve never seen her so distraught,” said John Doran, a longtime family friend.

Michael’s children--Michael Jr., Kyle and Rory--followed their grandmother and mother. The oak pews of the church, where Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. attended Mass and where at least three Kennedys were married, were packed with household-name relatives: John F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy; television newscaster Maria Shriver and her husband, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger; Edward M. Kennedy, the senior senator from Massachusetts and the family’s de facto patriarch, and his wife, Victoria Reggie Kennedy.

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Former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) also were among mourners at a ceremony that began with the reading of letters from President Clinton, South African President Nelson Mandela and Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

One of the presiding clergy members, the Rev. Michael Kennedy, is a distant relative and a parish priest in Dungarvan, Ireland. A choir from the 12th Street Baptist Church in Roxbury, a central Boston neighborhood, sang a spiritual, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Entertainer Andy Williams, a longtime family friend, sang “Ave Maria.”

But as Robert Kennedy had praised his brother John at his funeral in 1963, and as Ted Kennedy had paid tribute to Robert in 1968, it was Joe Kennedy who led the plaudits for Michael. He acknowledged that the brother who managed several of his congressional campaigns led “a life cut short, a life not without pain and imperfection.”

As if to dispel criticism of the brother who organized the game that killed him, Joe Kennedy lauded Michael’s “amazing physical gifts” as an athlete.

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“Like all gifted athletes, he was fearless--on the slopes, on water skis, wherever he could test himself at the edge,” said the congressman, who withdrew from the Massachusetts gubernatorial race after Michael’s affair with the baby sitter became public. “This was one of the glories of his life, and it should not be diminished by his loss.”

Kennedys have vacationed on Cape Cod for 75 years, and in Aspen since 1962. The family is known for traveling in packs and for large gatherings that sometimes grow raucous. Athletic prowess is almost mandatory, and for each generation, limit-pushing becomes a kind of competitive sport in its own right. Joe Kennedy preferred, however, to dwell on a more graceful side of that spirit.

Quoting from the A.E. Houseman verse, he described his brother as the athlete dying young. “Like the wind through the woods,” he recited, “through him, the gale of life blew high.”

Following the 90-minute funeral Mass, mourners again boarded buses, this time for the 85-mile ride to Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, a Boston suburb. The sight of brothers and sisters, cousins and aunts and uncles, all embracing beneath a large white tent at graveside was achingly familiar. When tragedy strikes, their sorrow can scarcely remain private.

Twenty-nine family members acted as pallbearers to accompany the coffin to a site near Michael Kennedy’s grandparents, Rose and Joe Kennedy Sr. His brother David, who died of a drug overdose in 1984, is buried nearby. The cemetery is minutes from the mansion where many of Joe and Rose Kennedy’s children were born, including President John F. Kennedy.

Like many in the family, Michael Kennedy was a Harvard University graduate. The family planned to gather following the burial at the Harvard Club in Boston for a quiet meal together.

Times correspondent Rebecca Mowbray contributed to this story.

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