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Old Saybrook’s Mary Kennedy played a large local role in John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president, her political activism started earlier and remains a focus today. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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It’s no wonder Mary Kennedy has been dubbed the “Energizer Bunny” of the Old Saybrook Democratic Town Committee. At 90 years old, she is long since retired from her career as a nurse, but remains a tireless public servant and volunteer for local candidates.
Having moved to Old Saybrook 13 or 14 years ago, she says, to be closer to her sister after retiring, she’s served on the Zoning Board of Appeals and currently serves on the Historic District Commission as well as the Public Health Nursing Board.
Mary is retired from a distinguished career in nursing. She became a registered nurse (RN) in 1948 and after working for more than 25 years—first as an operating room nurse at St. Francis Hospital, then running her own nursing home in Hamden—decided she needed to do more, and earned her M.A. in psychiatric nursing from Yale in 1977. For nearly three decades she split her time between mental health units at Bay State Hospital in Springfield and at a clinic in Holyoke; for about 20 of those years, she also worked every other weekend at a crisis unit.
Her involvement in politics goes back even further and includes meeting then-U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and attending a birthday party for Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mary believes it was her aunt, who worked for a Connecticut state commissioner, who ignited her interest in politics. Her first political memory was stopping by local Democratic headquarters in Torrington, where she was raised, and picking up literature. She brought it home and urged her parents to vote.
“I think Roosevelt must have been running at the time,” she says.
Born in 1928, the second of four children, she grew up during the Great Depression.
“My mother was pretty amazing, though. We always had food, no matter what. And it never seemed that we lacked much of anything,” she says. “She always managed.”
As she got older, she retained her interest in politics, although her participation in campaigns was “superficial” until she reached adulthood, she says.
“I just have always loved politics,” she explains. “It’s very interesting. I get involved in the issues and what the candidates are involved in and what they’re saying and what they believe and what they don’t believe and how they’re going to support things that I’m interested in.
“After I got my RN, that’s when I really got involved,” she continues. “That’s when I joined the Young Democrats and then I would be really involved in the campaigns.”
Her nursing career took her to southern Massachusetts, but her political interests focused primarily on her home state.
“I was very active in Hartford. I was the national [Young Democratic] committeewoman. And then I got elected as the national treasurer for the Young Democrats. And I had a wonderful time,” she says. “I went to a few affairs when [John F. Kennedy] was a senator and I got to meet him then.”
She traveled to Los Angeles for the 1960 Democratic National Convention, where Kennedy was nominated for president. During his presidential campaign, “I was a Young Democratic Kennedy Girl—there were four or five of us. We drove all over the state. They had a record that we played constantly and sang to and solicited all the people in all the shopping areas” for their support and votes.
They also handed out pins and literature.
“I wore out a pair of shoes, we walked so much,” she says with a laugh. “We didn’t go door to door. We mainly did big shopping areas. And fairs—things like that.”
There wasn’t much door-to-door canvassing in those days, Mary explains. Instead, volunteers made a lot of phone calls.
“Then, more people answered the phone,” she notes.
When the Young Democrats got word of when JFK was coming to Connecticut, they were ready.
“It was in the middle of the night. All of us that were campaigning for him were in Waterbury by the side of the road so we could cheer for him” as the car he was riding in drove by, she recalls.
As a practicing Catholic, the possibility of JFK becoming the first Catholic president meant a lot to her—and the prejudice he faced was dismaying.
“It shouldn’t have been an issue,” she says. “The church wouldn’t be running the presidency, like they were claiming.”
She shakes her head.
“He was much too short term. I think his brother [Robert F. Kennedy] would have been a wonderful president. How ironic that they were murdered. It’s sad,’ she says. “And that family has had so much tragedy.”
Mary thinks her family might be related to the famous political Kennedys.
“Way, way back I think we are,” she says. “But I always tell people I’m related by desire.”
In 1964, just nine months after JFK’s assassination, Mary played a crucial role at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where Lyndon B. Johnson was nominated for president.
“The state chairman appointed me to be at the front desk. I knew everybody that came in,” she says. “They were all Southerners—nobody knew the New England people. So they used to say, ‘Is this who they say they are?’ ‘Yeah,’ [she’d answer]. ‘That’s the governor.’ So they had me up there so I could identify who was coming on stage.
“The last night of the convention was Johnson’s birthday [Aug. 27], so I got to go to his birthday party. They had it upstairs [at the convention center]. In fact, I have a picture in Time magazine where I’m behind his cake when he’s cutting his cake,” she says. “There are a few of us standing behind his cake. That was fun.”
Another indelible memory was watching the convention one night from the Huntley-Brinkley booth during their broadcast. The Huntley-Brinkley Report was a news program that aired from 1956 to 1970, featuring the anchors Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
And then there was coffee with the nominee.
“A whole bunch of us Young Democrats had rented a house [in Atlantic City] and…Johnson’s house was two houses away,” she says. “So he stopped in one morning and had coffee. It was a very exciting time.”
As Mary’s political involvement continued over the years, much of it focused on Connecticut gubernatorial races. She has particularly fond memories of Irish-born John N. Dempsey, who served as governor from 1961 to 1971.
While her career in nursing and her calling in politics has shown her the range of adversity people can face, one constant applies: She remains optimistic about the ability of citizens to effect change.
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