"I want to say something because I've made something out of my life," Pamela Kelley Burkley told PEOPLE before her death — "I'm proud of what I did"

By Liz McNeil
December 03, 2020 01:22 PM
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Pamela Kelley Burkley circa 1975
| Credit: Courtesy Karen Kelley

It was the summer of 1973 and Pam Kelley was a free-spirited 18-year-old living in Massachusetts who loved animals (especially stray cats) and swimming and her boyfriend, David Kennedy, the fourth of Robert and Ethel's 11 children.

On Aug. 13, the young couple went on a beach trip near Nantucket accompanied by Kim Kelley, Pam's sister, as well as three friends and Joseph Kennedy II, David's older brother. On the way home their jeep, driven by 20-year-old Joe, swerved at an intersection and flipped over, throwing out all of the passengers — and shattering Pam's life.

In the hospital, she learned she was paralyzed from the chest down and would not walk again. "I'll never forget our mother telling her," sister Karen Kelley remembers. "My father couldn't do it. We all cried. The room was so quiet. She wasn't sobbing, but there were tears running down Pam's face."

Doctors warned her then that she would never have children and wouldn't survive past 40, Karen says.

They were wrong. Pamela Kelley Burkley, her married name, died on Nov. 20 at 65, after a long life — a life of challenges and delights, addiction and recovery and resilience. A life, ever since that crash 47 years ago, tangled together with one of the country's most prominent political families.

"I have beautiful memories of when [Pam] was little," Karen tells PEOPLE now. "She was a happy-go-lucky kid who loved animals and wore long pigtails. I remember her walking. And now I know she's walking with the angels. She's free now. She's not in pain."

'I Made Something'

Pam is survived by her daughter, 31-year-old Paige, whom she had via a cesarean section, and her two young grandsons. "Paige was the love of her life," says Karen. And, she adds, she "reveled in her life as a grandmother. She was always drawing with them and teaching them something."

But the final years, especially the last few months, were so hard.

Pam had been in a Cape Cod nursing home after an infected bedsore caused such severe pain that she could no longer sit in her wheelchair, according to her family. "Her body was breaking down," says Karen. "We were between a rock and hard place. She was in pain and needed the care, but she was really depressed."

Isolated in a facility during the novel coronavirus pandemic, Pam "was lonely," Karen says. "Some days she could not get out of bed. She had nothing to look forward to."

According to Karen, her cause of death is still unknown.

And what her family grapples with still is what the Kennedys could have done — and, they say, did not — for Pam until her death.

Joseph P. Kennedy III (left) grimaces as he watches his brother David Kennedy being placed in ambulance after the jeep which Joe was driving overturned in Massachusetts on Aug. 13, 1973.
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty
Joe Kennedy II is followed from Nantucket District Court by his mother, Ethel Kennedy.
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty

"I wish she could have lived in more comfort," Karen says. "Joe ruined her. She could have lived more comfortably or had a nurse to help her. He could have helped her more."

(Joe did not respond to a request for comment left with his office. Now 68, the former Massachusetts congressman and founder of Citizens Energy is the father of Rep. Joe P. Kennedy III and his twin brother, Matt.)

The matter of the money is complicated. After the crash in '73, according to The New York Times, Joe was fined $100 and found guilty of negligent driving.

According to news reports, which Karen confirms, Pam initially received a payment of approximately $668,000 from an insurance settlement. "Pam did not want to sue Joe," her sister says. "The money went to medical bills and my father used it to buy the house for her [in Hyannis, Massachusetts] which was made wheelchair accessible."

Karen says "he also made a couple of bad investments," however, and within 10 years it was all gone.

"It was not a lot of money for a lifetime and to get the medical care she needs," Karen says. "Joe could have helped her more."

According to a 1974 New York Times article, a spokesman for then-Sen. Ted Kennedy said the cost of Pam's hospitalization had been paid by the Kennedys' insurance company.

And while Pam rarely spoke publicly about what happened, she did break her silence in 2005 to say that Joe had stopped providing her aid and, as one article described it, "treats her like trash" after giving her an additional $50,000 over the years.

"She told us — her parents and her siblings — not to say anything rotten about Joe or else the money would stop and she felt he just wants her to shut up and go away," Karen says now.

In the end, she says, "[Pam] felt that he figured she was a nothing and didn't want anything to do with her."

Pam has said she tried to focus on what she could change, rather than what she could not.

In 1999, she told The Cape Cod Times she had remained friendly with some members of the Kennedy family. "What happened to me stinks, but I made something decent out of it," she said then. "It does not make any sense to blame."

She had her own life, no matter what else.

Pamela Kelley Burkley in 1973
| Credit: Bettmann/Getty

After the crash, her mother quit her job to move in and care for Pam, and slowly she learned to take care of herself. "She played pool and she'd dance by tipping her wheelchair on the back wheels," Karen recalls with a laugh. "She never let the wheelchair stop her when she was young. She traveled to South America and Europe. We went to Italy — and she was so light, we got her carried upstairs to the Sistine Chapel."

At times, she struggled. By her late 20s, Pam was drinking heavily and she eventually went to rehab. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober in the early '80s. The death of her former boyfriend David Kennedy, from a drug overdose in 1984 at age 28, devastated her and led her to confront her own issues, her family says.

"David was a sweetheart," Karen says. "He couldn't beat his demons."

According to Karen, "Pam straightened herself out and started volunteering at CORD, the Cape Organization for the Rights of the Disabled, an advocacy group for people with disabilities." She eventually became the director, advocating for healthcare, fair housing and the implementation of ramps and accessible bathrooms in public buildings.

Says her sister: "She'd go out of her way to drive people to the supermarket, people who couldn't drive themselves. She was incredible."

Speaking with The Cape Cod Times, one colleague said Pam once joined a demonstration of people in wheelchairs who crowded into an intersection to show it was unnavigable. She also lobbied the community college she attended over accessibility issues.

“Pamela was a front-line activist,” her successor at CORD, Bill Henning, told the Cape Cod paper. “She was articulate," he said. "She was also as personable as the devil.”

"I blossomed," Pam told PEOPLE last year. "I had never worked a day in my life before, and I worked there for over 20 years."

'I Don't Think Anybody Still Wonders'

In 2019, this PEOPLE reporter met Pam, who then wanted to share the story of what had happened to her. She was frail, in poor health and frightened about losing her home, which was in disrepair.

"I want to stay in my house and I want to be able to leave something to my daughter," she said at the time. "When I got hurt in 1973, I really believed he [Joe] would do the right thing. That's what I said to my dad: 'You don't have to sue them. They'll do the right thing,' but they haven't done the right thing yet and I'm tired of it."

As she reflected on the Kennedys' shadow over her life, she also said her own part in their story had likely been forgotten. "I don't think anybody still wonders where I am today," she told PEOPLE. "I don't think anybody remembers really."

Pamela Kelley Burkley circa 1980
| Credit: Courtesy Karen Kelley

Those last few years had been extremely difficult. After their father sold her first home, Pam bought Karen's Hyannis house for approximately $75,000, but she had trouble keeping up the mortgage payments in recent years.

She retired from CORD in 2006 and her health continued to deteriorate. She had recurring bladder cancer and spasms. "She had trouble getting out of bed," Karen says. "She'd been in and out of hospitals for many years and was no longer able to drive. She couldn't do what she had always done."

Pam told PEOPLE there was periodic assistance from Joe, but she admitted then that she no longer knew where the paperwork was.

"I got $15,000 to do stuff around the house. It wasn't very much, but I took it," she said. "The roof was $30,000. I didn't have a choice."

She also said that she had been receiving $2,004 a month — which she said was later upped to $2,500 — from Joe for approximately 14 years, after she complained to the press in 2005 that she was in need of money. "I don't want to be mean about it, because that's not me," she told PEOPLE, "but I'm so disappointed and I'm so hurt."

While her family is trying to untangle her finances, Karen says that Pam had filed for bankruptcy in an effort to save her home. And Paige is wondering if she will be able to keep her mother's property and live there with her two sons.

In the last year, "She had nonstop health problems and we could not afford the new equipment [a new bed and chair] she needed," Paige tells PEOPLE. "She was just trying to be there for me and the kids, and we moved in with her. Mom always tried to take care of us."

When Pam died in November, both Karen and Paige were by her side. "She knew we were there for the last few hours," says her sister, fighting back tears.

Speaking with PEOPLE, Pam said that she had suffered, yes, and that she had survived.

"I spent my whole life as a disabled person doing good things and being a good person and self-reliant," she said last year. "I want to say something because I've made something out of my life. I only asked for money when I needed it. That's just the way I am. I'm proud of what I did. I rose to the occasion."