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At the Capitol

A final goodbye from his colleagues

Lawmakers, staffers pay their respects

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / August 30, 2009

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WASHINGTON - For one final time, Senator Edward M. Kennedy returned last evening to his political home - the Capitol, where he served for 47 years in the Senate with 10 presidents, helped write hundreds of laws, and shaped a nation.

Waiting in welcome and tribute were about 1,000 current and former congressional staff members, police officers, and others who worked with him up close.

As the hearse carrying the casket pulled up, applause then cheers thundered from those gathered to honor Kennedy during a brief stop on the way to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.

Victoria Reggie Kennedy led the family out of their limousines and hugged tearful longtime staffers. Current and former members of Congress also attended, including Kennedy’s longtime colleague and friend Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who is ailing himself and is in a wheelchair. Byrd, who wiped away tears, could barely get through a speech on the Senate floor last year when talking about Kennedy’s cancer diagnosis.

The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, the House chaplain, told Victoria Kennedy that everyone gathered wanted to show their solidarity and support.

“Though in the sight of the people, your servant Senator Ted Kennedy suffered greatly and took on enormous tasks, Lord, you knew his hopes were unquenchable, full of immortality,’’ Coughlin prayed. “You knew his strengths and limitations.’’

As Victoria Kennedy continued greeting well-wishers, staffers - some with miniature US flags in their pockets - sang “America the Beautiful.’’ They applauded again as she walked back to the motorcade; she blew them kisses in return and waved.

Speaking on the family’s behalf, Kennedy’s younger son, Representative Patrick Kennedy, said the senator could not have accomplished what he did without them.

“He was only great because he had great people supporting him,’’ the congressman said.

Some of those who turned out said they simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to say one last good-bye to the last Kennedy brother.

Senate aide Jorge Castro, 32, brought his nephew, Marvin Sanchez, 10, and stood on the lawn across from the Capitol for three hours to pay his respects. “He was a very passionate member who gave voice to those who didn’t have a voice. And I thought it would be a good experience for Marvin.’’

As Kennedy’s hearse moved away from the Capitol grounds, people spontaneously began singing “America the Beautiful’’ again, others yelled, “Thank you, thank you.’’

The motorcade then slowly went past thousands of spectators lining Constitution Avenue, passed the Lincoln Memorial, and crossed the Potomac River, before arriving at Arlington National Cemetery’s Memorial Gate.

The crowd included three nurses who work at the veterans hospital in Bedford who were in Washington for a convention. “This took precedence over everything,’’ said Kathy Lehmann, 54, of Hull wearing a T-shirt she bought earlier at Union Station emblazoned with “Thanks, Ted.’’

Rahel Beyene, 38, who moved to Washington recently from Ethiopia, said she remembered when Kennedy visited her famine-stricken country in 1985. “I just had to pay my respects,’’ she said.

Others broke down in tears when talking about what Kennedy meant to them. Martin E. Andersen, 54, of Maryland, held aloft a massive American flag. His voice breaking, he said, “I think the country owes him enormous thanks.’’

Kennedy’s burial was to take place at a sacred station in Kennedy lore, an emerald shoulder of earth that the Massachusetts senator visited often, in view of the plots where brothers John and Robert have long rested.

Unlike his brothers, the 77-year-old Edward Kennedy had years to contemplate how and where he would be buried, and in preparing for death, he decided to follow the example of his brothers, just as he had in his political life. In contrast to the funeral yesterday at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Boston, which was packed with politicians, friends, and dignitaries, the burial service was expected to be a quiet family conversation, with three generations of Kennedys and in-laws, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

Victoria Kennedy was to be accompanied by her parents, her children from her first marriage, as well as the senator’s children and grandchildren. The senator’s sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, and his sister-in-law, Ethel Kennedy, joined the ceremony.

There was no microphone and no access for the public, although a small group of reporters was permitted within sight as observers.

Michael Kranish of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.