By Richard Lemon
June 06, 1983 12:00 PM

I grew up with an awful lot of dreams, all tied up with doing good and saving one’s soul.

—David Townsend

We had to recite three current events every day. Daddy came home and told us about flying to see James Meredith or going to a house in Mississippi where a whole family lived in one room. He said, “You’ve been privileged, and you have a responsibility to help people, to sacrifice.”

—Kathleen Townsend

They seem a nice young couple, much like others in their suburb west of Boston. David and Kathleen Townsend are both lawyers and Catholics. By 8:30 every morning she leaves their green clapboard home to drive to the Massachusetts State House, where she works as a poverty program analyst. David, four years older at 35, with four years of teaching classics at college behind him, is writing a novel at home while tending Meaghan, 5, and Maeve, 3. “He represents the new type of father,” Kathleen’s Aunt Eunice says. “He really seems to enjoy taking care of the kids.”

But David’s househusbandry is not all that sets the Townsends apart. His wife, born Kathleen Hartington Kennedy, is a scion of a famous family: eldest of the 11 children of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, eldest of the 29 grandchildren of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, the first of her generation to marry and have children. While she has not drawn as much notice as some of her kin, she is, as one cousin says, “a mover.”

Though Kathleen’s brother Joe is now the most publicly active Kennedy, having run a firm that sells cut-price heating oil to the poor in Massachusetts since 1979, Kathleen started work in January as a policy analyst (pay range: $23,000 to $30,000) in Gov. Mike Dukakis’ Office of Human Resources. “She has a real feel for vulnerable people,” says her boss, Philip Johnston. She visits shelters and meets with welfare officials, and has written a memo on jobs policy for the poor. All the cousins, notes a family friend, share a “commitment to the disadvantaged, and it isn’t political chic.” But Kathleen, says another insider, may be “the most serious of them all.”

She doesn’t dispute that. Two days after her Uncle John was shot in 1963, when she was 12, her father wrote her: “You seemed to understand that Jack died and was buried today. As the oldest of the Kennedy grandchildren, you have particular responsibility now, a special responsibility to John and Joe [Jr., killed in WW II]. Be kind and work for your country. Love, Daddy.” Though she won’t discuss her father’s death, 15 years ago next week, she speaks readily of his influence.

“We’ve had wonderful parents who could teach us—my father about responsibility, seriousness, honesty, history and love of family; my mother about joy, celebration and generosity,” she says. “They had interesting friends we were able to talk with. Being a part of the action, seeing the world have been good for all of us.” Her sister Courtney says of Kathleen: “She’s made Daddy’s life and feelings a part of herself, her work and how she deals with people.” Adds an old friend, Anne Coffey: “She embodies so many of her father’s values, she is a reminder for the rest of the younger Kennedys.”

Yet her life today is far different from the one she was born into. Her husband’s father is L. Raymond Town-send, a retired elementary school principal in Timonium, Md.; his mother, Dolores, a former school secretary. David is cheerfully low-key, scholarly, not notably athletic and possessed of merely one sib. (Larry, 41, designs rail yards for the Chessie System.) But if he fears being swallowed up by his in-laws, he gives no sign of it. “Kathleen’s mother is extremely gracious,” he says comfortably. “Rose is just great—such wit and spirit.”

David and the clan hit it off when Kathleen first took him home to McLean, Va. for Thanksgiving in 1972. “They looked me over,” he recalls. “We all played capture the flag. Hickory Hill is full of play and dogs and children. I was right at home.” Says Kerry: “He was adored.”

Kathleen grew up at Hickory Hill, the four-acre spread Bobby bought from Jack when she was 5. It is a place of high ceilings and white woodwork where the kids raised horses, played cowboys and Indians, and watched fancy parties over the hedge in their pajamas. “Kathleen would try anything, no holds barred,” Anne Coffey recalls. “I felt at times like I was dragging after her.” Once Kathleen’s dream was to team up with two girl pals, “have a horse farm, play for the rest of our days, and never get married.” But conscience eventually did its work. During a summer off from the Putney School in Vermont, she taught Indian children in Arizona, “stomping around in the mud and manure.” Later she worked with Eskimos in Alaska. And having been steeped in the subject at home, she became fascinated with politics. At 20, she worked for George McGovern’s presidential bid.

By then she had met Townsend in 1971 at Harvard, where he was getting a Ph.D. in English and was assigned to be her tutor. He had arrived in Cambridge via Loyola College, where he majored in English (and led a peace movement), and Timonium, a small town north of Baltimore. As a lad there, he says, his life was “following the stream or railroad tracks to the source, catching turtles and snakes, trying to educate myself and to learn how to love the things I liked.”

Following the 1971-72 school year, Kathleen got David and three friends, inspired by Life on the Mississippi, to spend a month floating 500 miles down Mark Twain’s river on a raft. “It was a good American adventure,” she recalls. “It was also a good way to get to know your teacher out of the classroom.” Very good: In little more than a year, they were engaged (“You’ve got to work fast in this world,” she says). He wrought her ring out of gold, then engraved it with an Aztec-like design to be a wedding ring, too. At their 1973 wedding in Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church, Uncle Teddy gave her away after rushing from the hospital where Ted Jr. had had his right leg amputated to check a rare form of cancer. “At the end everyone sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” David says. “Everybody loved that.” Rose’s advice to Kathleen: “Make sure you never, never argue at night. You just lose a good night’s sleep, and you can’t settle anything until morning anyway.”

After Kathleen’s 1974 Radcliffe graduation, David taught classics at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, while she commuted to the University of New Mexico Law School 70 miles away in Albuquerque. David “got interested in the problem of justice” while studying Plato and Aristotle, and in 1978 they both entered Yale Law School. She finished the work for her New Mexico degree there in 1979, and he graduated in 1981. In between they worked on Teddy’s brief presidential drive. Later they moved to Boston, where she was campaign director in Ted’s successful ’82 Senate race.

Meaghan was born at home in Santa Fe via Lamaze. “I didn’t want to be knocked out during one of the most profound experiences there is,” Kathleen explains. “Also, I don’t like to be told what to do. Hospitals tell you how to act.

“There is a tradition in New Mexico that after a home birth you bury the placenta and plant a tree over it,” she adds. “My mother arrived the day after and looked in the icebox. ‘What is this?’ she asked. I said, ‘A placenta.’ She said, ‘What’s it doing there behind the milk?’ I said, ‘There is a tradition…’ She went out and bought a piñon tree and buried the placenta herself. She’s open to all new experiences.”

Maeve was born in New Haven, also at home. David, who had read a police manual, delivered her at 4:55 a.m.—no local doctor could be found who would attend a home birth. “She was born in the amniotic sac, as Meaghan had been—a sign of great grace, according to an old midwife legend,” he says. “I had to chew through the sac or she would have drowned.” Says Kathleen: “We were slightly hysterical.”

As for their rearing, “My mother has opinions on raising kids—she thinks they should go to bed before 9 or they’ll get cross,” Kathleen says. “Well, I try. She’s stricter than I am.” She plans to send her children, who already attend a Montessori school, to public school. Kerry recalls her saying that Catholic ones just “don’t keep up with the modern world.”

Would her own future include politics? “I think about it sometimes,” she admits. “But running for office isn’t the only type of public service.” For now she’s focusing on her job and on helping the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, a family foundation, start an annual human rights award. Worthy works aside, is it still fun to be a Kennedy? Kathleen’s brother Joe once griped that he thought it “a disadvantage,” that “it certainly opened doors, but it opened some I didn’t want to walk into.” Kathleen demurs: “People think it’s hard growing up in the public eye, but it’s not. It’s exciting.” And a Camelot of sorts continues. “We all spend time together—Thanksgiving and Christmastime in Washington, Labor Day on Cape Cod,” and there are birthdays and ski trips in between. But she notes one “big difference” from the old Kennedy ways: “The fathers spend more time with their kids than the older generation.” The shining example, of course, is David Townsend.

Advertisement