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Kara Kennedy, 51, dies at health club

Daughter of senator tried to avoid limelight

By Matt Viser and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Kara Kennedy, 51, who died at a Washington health club on Friday night and was the daughter of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was the family member who might best be known as a survivor.

Diagnosed with lung cancer nine years ago and told she might have one year to live, she fought the disease, had part of her lung removed, underwent chemotherapy, and emerged strong. She had spent much of this year’s summer with her mother, Joan, on Cape Cod, swimming and running.

“It was one of the most wonderful summers I’ve had, and Kara told me one of the best she’s had on the Cape,’’ Joan Kennedy said in an interview yesterday. “I’m so glad that her last summer was such a happy one. It’s just such a shock because she was in such good health. She swam, I don’t know how many miles. She was in wonderful health.’’

So the way her life ended, in a popular health club near her home, leaving behind two teenage children, only added to the twist of tragedy that has become so familiar to the Kennedy family. Ms. Kennedy had just taken a swim in the club as part of her daily workout. She died of an apparent heart attack, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate said in a statement.

“We all know that she is now with my dad,’’ her brother, Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman from Rhode Island, said outside her two-story home in northwest Washington. His voice cracking, he said, “It’s a devastating loss . . . she was all about her kids, my sister.’’

She leaves a 14-year-old son, Max, and a daughter, Grace, who turns 17 tomorrow .

Kara Ann Kennedy was born Feb. 27, 1960, at a time when her father was campaigning in New Hampshire for his brother, John F. Kennedy, as he ran in the presidential primary.

“I had never seen a more beautiful baby, nor been happier in my life,’’ Senator Kennedy wrote in his 2009 memoir, “True Compass.’’ “Kara’s name means ‘little dear one,’ and she was then and always has been my precious little dear one.’’

Kara Kennedy graduated from Tufts University and worked as a television producer for “Evening Magazine’’ on WBZ-TV in Boston. She later became a filmmaker and, while many in her family could never escape the public eye, she was shy.

“Unlike my father, I felt more comfortable behind the camera than in front of it,’’ she wrote in an article for The Boston Globe Magazine in April. “But like him, I found my greatest fulfillment in showing the needs and successes of others.’’

She was a volunteer for a group called Reading Partners and at N Street Village in Washington, a center that is dedicated to helping low-income and homeless women. In August 2009, she accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of her father during a ceremony with President Obama in the East Room of the White House. She served on the National Advisory Board of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and as a director emerita and national trustee of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

“Kara was a warm and caring person,’’ read a statement from the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, now being built in Boston. The Institute, of which she was a board member, is named for her father and will be dedicated to the study of the Senate. “Her children were the light and joy of her life. Her magnificent strength in her successful battle with lung cancer was a quiet inspiration to all [of] us and provided her family and fellow patients with hope. Kara was loved and cherished by the entire Kennedy family.’’

Ms. Kennedy had recently coproduced a film for the Institute at its April groundbreaking, and also produced numerous videos for Very Special Arts, an organization founded by her aunt Jean Kennedy Smith.

Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002, she was told by a doctor at Johns Hopkins University that it was inoperable and she might have less than a year to live. Senator Kennedy did not trust the prognosis, and began searching for other options.

She later had a portion of her right lung removed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in January 2003. She undertook a regimen of chemotherapy, and her cancer was thought to be in remission. She was said to be running five miles a day.

“Kara responded to my exhortations to have faith in herself,’’ Edward Kennedy wrote in his memoir. “Today, nearly seven years later as I write this, Kara is a healthy, vibrant, active mother of two who is flourishing.’’

Her brother, Edward Kennedy Jr., lost a leg to bone cancer when he was 12 years old; her other brother, Patrick, had a noncancerous tumor removed from his spine in 1988; and her father died of a malignant brain tumor.

The Kennedys, a family for which sudden death has been common and public, went through a familiar ritual upon hearing the news of her death. Phone calls were made, e-mails sent, and family members began making flight arrangements to be near one another. Kara’s two younger brothers, Patrick and Edward M. Kennedy Jr., and her stepmother, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, gathered yesterday at her home in Northwest Washington - a quaint two-story brick and yellow stucco house a few blocks from the National Cathedral - to plan funeral arrangements.

“It is a shock,’’ said Scott Ferson, a former aide to her father, Senator Kennedy. “She had had health problems related to cancer, but not, as far as I know, heart disease. She took her health seriously, she ran a lot and was seemingly very healthy.’’

The Washington police department said it received a call shortly after 6 p.m. Friday night. Kara Kennedy had been working out at the Tenley Sport & Health Club about a mile from her home in Northwest Washington.

Police spokesman Hugh Carew said she was pronounced dead at the scene. The cause was still undetermined yesterday, pending the results of an autopsy by the chief medical examiner in DC, but the death did not appear suspicious, he said.

The Rev. Mark R. Hession, the Kennedy family’s priest on Cape Cod, said he got to know Kara Kennedy when her father was suffering from cancer, and she and her children would celebrate Mass with him at the Kennedy family home in Hyannis Port.

“She was a great support to Ted, and the kids were, too,’’ Hession said, recalling how the children, during a blessing for health, would “go over to their grandfather and rest their hands on him.’’

“All of them helped to ease his suffering,’’ said Hession, who is pastor at Our Lady of Victory Parish in Centerville. “She was a wonderful woman, and a great parent, and an outstanding Christian. We’re all concerned for the well-being of her children now.’’

Kara Kennedy married Michael Allen in 1990, and they later separated.

“Insofar as I’m concerned her legacy is one of courage and grit and determination in the face of her own illness and in the face of many family tragedies and limitless, absolutely limitless, devotion to our children,’’ he said.

In addition to her children, Allen, her mother, and two brothers, and stepmother, she leaves her stepbrother and stepsister, Curran and Caroline Raclin.

Funeral arrangements had not yet been finalized as of late yesterday afternoon.

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com. Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @DonovanSlack.