The Little Girl From Wilkes-Barre

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - September 02, 2009

Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is not the bastion of political power or cultural symbolism in America. You do not see movers and shakers frenetically dodging other well-suited executives while barking into their Bluetooths. If ladies do walk in sneakers around town, they won’t be wearing the requisite Ann Taylor blazers with skirts of appropriate lengths.

No, Wilkes-Barre is a smallish town nestled near the Pocono Mountains, the Lehigh Valley and the Susquehanna River. It’s such a nice town that locals won’t mind much if you mispronounce its name.

As enticing as Wilkes-Barre was, one family found opportunity in nearby New Jersey. The insurance business can be a challenge, but Joe and Gwen made the move when their baby daughter was born.

If you have kids, you know how their lives can change yours. For most of us, our kids become the center of the universe. The French call it raison d’etre, or “the reason for being.” Joe and Gwen lived for their daughter and, since Mary was their only child, it stands to reason their love came with a unique intensity.

Growing up in a loving home is a blessing for any child. Mary attended parochial schools and, as a devout Catholic, relocated to Alabama to teach at the mission of St. Jude. The civil rights movement was in full swing and she wanted to be an agent for positive change in an ever-changing world. Involvement in politics seemed as natural as taking a breath. Her business degree and unmitigated enthusiasm led her to the office of Florida Sen. George Smathers. She moved to Washington, D.C., and after the 1964 election, began to work for freshman U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Her tenure with the youthful senator culminated in 1967 when her input and expertise helped craft some of the most important messages he would deliver. Most notably was the speech in which Robert Kennedy would announce his candidacy for president of the United States.

Not bad for a little girl from Wilkes-Barre.

When the shots rang out at the Ambassador Hotel and the pleas of “Get the gun! Get the gun!” subsided, the end of Robert Kennedy’s life was imminent and the dreams of his supporters vanished. In 1968, the nation also would see the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Idealism was a casualty, too. The loss of RFK was too much for Mary, and she left the world of politics.

Her father Joe would later say, “Politics was her life.” Mary returned to Washington, D.C., as a key player in what would become the first political consulting firms in the nation. Her experience, talent and dedication ensured a bright and successful future.

There were six ladies invited to attend a cocktail party on July 18, 1969. “The Boiler Room Girls” were honored for their role in assisting the late Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Although his passing was a painful memory, it seemed the reunion was more celebration than reflection. It must have been nice to see such good friends again.

It was the last time her friends, her colleagues and family would see her again. In a matter of hours, Mary Jo Kopeckne would be found dead on Chappaquiddick Island in U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s car.

There is a swirl of reportage regarding that night. Speculation is natural in a case such as this, but it was exacerbated by the highly suspect and unusual actions and statements made by Kennedy himself. In his attempt to explain the circumstances surrounding Kopeckne’s death, more questions were raised than answered. I encourage you to research the details of his bizarre account of the events leading to the untimely death of a 29-year-old woman last seen in the company of a powerful U.S. senator.

The recent passing of Kennedy was met with laudatory and reverential statements from those of all political persuasions. He has been, literally, lionized for his work in the U.S. Senate for more than four decades. His legacy will be one of family tragedy tempered by great advocacy for those less fortunate. His passing signals the end of “Camelot,” an era in American politics dominated by the Kennedy family. In dedicating his life to public service, Kennedy should rightfully be remembered for his contributions to American history.

Kopeckne will forever be associated with Teddy Kennedy. There is no celebration of her life. There are no soaring rhetorical pronouncements of her valuable contributions to society. She is only known to us as the girl who died in Kennedy’s car.

Mary Jo of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., did not live a life of privilege, nor did she have a name synonymous with American royalty. She was the only daughter of a middle-class family who dedicated her life to a cause she believed in; a life that she earned, not that was reserved for her. Her life held great promise and, upon her would-be 69th birthday this year, we could have been bestowing praise and honor for her accomplishments.

But we’ll never know. That night at Chappaquiddick robbed her of a wonderful life. I only ask that during the prolonged and voluminous remembrances of Sen. Edward Kennedy that we remember Joe and Gwen Kopeckne. Although the passing of Kennedy is a sad occasion, the loss of a daughter and the unfulfilled promise of her life is the real tragedy.

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