Kennedy found bond with cross section of Western Pennsylvania

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff will never forget Sen. Ted Kennedy's visits to Pittsburgh for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee's annual Jefferson Jackson Dinners.

"The party just loved him, and he came whenever he was available," Masloff said, recalling the Massachusetts lawmaker who many memorialized Wednesday as "the Lion of the Senate."

Kennedy, 77, who died Tuesday a year after being diagnosed with brain cancer, drew accolades here and elsewhere from supporters and adversaries alike.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican, recalled how Kennedy, a frequent foe in matters of politics, reached out to him when the Santorums' infant son Gabriel died in 1996.

"It wasn't common knowledge that we had lost a child. Kennedy found out and was the first person to call me and offer his condolences, and also to see if there was anything he could do," said Santorum. He said Kennedy, who buried three older brothers before his 40th birthday, "certainly understood the emotional impact of loss."

Jack Shea, president of Allegheny County Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said Kennedy's work on issues such as civil rights, Medicare, education and worker safety endeared him to organized labor.

But Kennedy's personal charisma sticks in Shea's mind. The two met after a Senate hearing years ago.

"I know it sounds odd to say it, but he lit up the room," Shea said.

Greene County native Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, was a rank-and-file member of the United Mine Workers of America in 1968 when he met Kennedy while both worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign in the coalfields of Southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"I was impressed with his passion, his vision. He was resolute in the continuity of his convictions in the fight for working people," Trumka said. "You can't replace a Teddy Kennedy. ... He was working people's best friend."

Aliquippa native Bill George, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said Kennedy made friends throughout the region during his brief 1980 presidential bid.

"Ted was in Western Pennsylvania quite a bit. He just loved steelworkers and coal miners. He liked visiting the work sites," George said.

Laborers returned his affection. George recalled a steelworkers convention Kennedy addressed. The applause was so overwhelming that the burly senator yelled, "Thank you, thank you," and implored the crowd to sit down so he could talk.

Former county Coroner Cyril Wecht was chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Party when Kennedy contemplated his presidential bid.

Wecht worked on the investigations of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy. Later, Wecht served as an expert witness, testifying unsuccessfully in favor of an exhumation and autopsy of the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, the young woman who drowned in 1969 when a car Ted Kennedy was driving went over a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island.

Kennedy never mentioned any of that when he called Wecht to ask for input on a possible presidential bid.

Later, when Kennedy flew to Pittsburgh for a Democratic Committee dinner, Wecht met him at the airport and drove him into the city.

"He was a very charming guy, without making you feel he was going out of his way," Wecht recalled. "There was nothing the least bit condescending or arrogant about him. ... You didn't feel he was just going through the motions.

"I feel this is a great loss, whether you are Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative."

Additional Information:


'(Ted Kennedy) certainly understood the emotional impact of loss.'

Former Sen. Rick Santorum

He received condolences upon the loss of his infant son

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