A swelling tide of emotion

Thousands line procession route to hail Kennedy

By Michael Levenson and Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / August 28, 2009

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Tens of thousands of mourners packed the sides of beach roads, highways, and city streets from Hyannis Port to Boston yesterday as Massachusetts bid an emotional farewell to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who made a final journey from his cherished summer refuge, over the Sagamore Bridge, past touchstones of his life in politics.

The mood was both celebratory and somber, as people waved American flags and held handmade signs, watching as the senator’s funeral procession wound swiftly to its destination at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where the senator will lie in repose through this afternoon.

Union carpenters holding hard hats, immigrants from across the globe, students with backpacks, office workers in suits, and retirees who stuffed envelopes for his first campaign four decades ago all came out for a miles-long salute that seemed to capture in its multitudes the breadth of Kennedy’s connection to his home state.

It was an extraordinary kick-off to a three-day celebration of Kennedy’s life, which continues today with a public viewing of his casket at the Kennedy library and a private memorial service there tonight. Tomorrow, President Obama is scheduled to deliver a eulogy at Kennedy’s funeral Mass at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Mission Hill, followed by Kennedy’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Yesterday’s procession, for all its grandeur and scope, seemed to captivate the region because many knew Kennedy not as an exalted senator and powerful statesman, bellowing on the national stage, but as an intimate figure who frequented their neighborhoods, knew their names, and exuded an uncommon compassion, especially in private moments.

“We’re his family,’’ said Teresa Antonelli, 82, who watched the senator’s hearse pass through the North End and who carried a plastic bag with a framed photograph of Kennedy with her son.

“We loved him so much,’’ she said, her voice breaking. “We’ll miss him so much.’’

Crowds surged and applauded along the route but were heaviest in Boston, bringing parts of the city to a reverent standstill as Kennedy’s body passed. As the motorcade crept slowly up Park Street toward the State House, a smattering of applause became a fullovation and then whoops and hollers. People climbed onto lampposts to get a better view and waved American flags.

One of Kennedy’s sons, US Representative Patrick Kennedy, waved at the crowd and mouthed, “Thank you.’’ The senator’s wife, Vicki, blew a kiss.

On Boston Common, there were women in wheelchairs, girls in strollers, and men wearing Red Sox T-shirts. Antoine Davis, a security guard who had escorted Kennedy when the senator came for cancer treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital, was there with his 10-year-old daughter.

“We’re going to wave our flag and send Ted off right,’’ he said.

He recalled how Kennedy never stopped being the senator he always was, even in the throes of radiation and chemotherapy.

“Despite what he was going through, you couldn’t tell,’’ Davis said. “We’d talk about the Red Sox, the Patriots, and Dorchester. It was always about you, your life. You don’t find too many politicians like that.’’

The procession began at midday with a Mass for the Kennedy family in a sunroom of their compound in Hyannis Port, overlooking Nantucket Sound, where the senator loved to sail. Afterward, a military honor guard rolled the senator’s casket, draped in an American flag, out of the storied home.

Kennedy’s relatives, led by Vicki and his sister, Jean, stood silently as the casket was loaded into the back of the waiting hearse. The senator’s daughter, Kara, briefly wiped away tears, but most family members were stoic, their hands clasped in front of them. Kennedy’s two granddaughters briefly embraced before the family dispersed into waiting limousines. Many reached out and lay a soft hand on Kennedy’s hearse as they walked by.

Out on Scudder Avenue, the road to the compound, Kennedy’s Hyannis Port neighbors gave him a final send-off from a place so imbued with the pain and joys his family had experienced over decades in public life.

Hundreds of people in shorts and T-shirts lined the road. Toddlers waved tiny American flags. Mothers held children in their arms. Two women watched with tears streaming down their cheeks, holding their hands over their hearts.

At the foot of the Sagamore Bridge, a bagpiper played a dirge. Hundreds of mourners gathered as the hearse left Cape Cod, clutching flags and holding signs. One said “Forever ours, Senator Kennedy.’’ Another, “Fair winds and calm seas.’’

Crowds packed highway overpasses on Route 3 and Interstate 93 heading into Boston, some waving Irish flags. A billboard displayed a photo of the senator with the message “The dream lives on. 1932-2009.’’

In the North End, the hearse rolled past St. Stephen’s Church on Hanover Street, where the senator’s mother, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, was baptized in 1890 and eulogized at her funeral Mass in 1995. She was born around the corner from the church, on Garden Court Street, where neighbors greeted Kennedy as one of their own.

“I felt like I knew him all my life,’’ said Claudia Spagnuolo who made a sign that read: “Peace and prayers to the Kennedy family’’ and placed it in her restaurant, La Famiglia Spagnuolo.

“It’s my last farewell to Ted,’’ she said.

Leaving the North End, the motorcade rolled past Faneuil Hall, where Kennedy stood beneath a portrait of Daniel Webster and announced his candidacy for president on Nov. 7, 1979. The bell in the historic hall tolled 47 times, one for each of his years in the Senate.

“It’s a day of sadness, a day of paying respects to a great individual who helped make this city what it is today,’’ said a visibly moved Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who watched the procession in front of City Hall with his wife, Angela.

The motorcade took Summer Street into South Boston, passing construction workers wearing hardhats, soldiers in fatigues, and members of a carpenter’s union holding signs. Along Broadway, some recalled with anguish the senator’s support for busing in the 1970s. One shopkeeper made a sign that read “It’s a great day! Liberated! Set Free!’’

More were moved to honor to Kennedy. Mary McLeod, 85, a lifelong South Boston resident, recalled meeting him at a house party during his first Senate run in 1962. She still remembers the address - “604 East 7th Street,’’ she said, “what we used to call the Mother’s Club of South Boston.’’

“It was all South Boston old ladies like myself,’’ she said outside her home on East Broadway. “And he was picture perfect. Charming.’’

Her sister, Clara Amalfitano, 82, volunteered on Kennedy’s campaign that year, passing out stickers and addressing envelopes. “It kills me now to see how old he got,’’ she said. “He was so handsome.’’

After traveling Broadway to the water, the hearse hugged the shore, curving along Dorchester Bay. Young men in swim trunks stood and watched in front of the McCormack Bath House, part of the crowd lining Carson Beach.

The hearse made its last stop in a circular drive at the entrance to the Kennedy Presidential Library. The wooden casket was carried from the hearse by a military honor guard, who moved in slow, synchronized steps.

Noah Bierman, David Abel, Donovan Slack, Maria Sacchetti, and Matt Viser of the Globe staff contributed to this report.