Ted Kennedy: Apology for Mary Jo

8:49 pm Crime Stories


Sunday, July 10, 1994

Page: 1A
By DAWN SHURMAITIS; Times Leader Staff Writer

SWIFTWATER — Two simple words: I’m sorry.

That’s all Gwen and Joe Kopechne ever really wanted from Sen. Ted Kennedy,
the driver of the car that plunged off a bridge 25 years ago, killing the
Kopechnes’ only child, Mary Jo.

They didn’t want money.

Even today, Gwen Kopechne bristles at persistent gossip the family used
Kennedy “blood money” to buy its one-story retirement home in the Poconos.

The Kopechnes did receive a $140,923 settlement from Kennedy’s insurance
company, but they insist it was always their plan to use their savings to
retire in the Poconos. Mary Jo, says her mother, loved it there.

“We worked,” says Gwen Kopechne, a Wyoming Valley native. “Kennedy didn’t
buy this house.”

Today, the Kopechnes live on the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a wooded
development. Seashells Gwen Kopechne collected from the shores of
Chappaquiddick during trips the family made there years ago decorate the
back stoop and mantlepiece of the modest home. A “Wilkum” sign hangs near
the door.

To keep busy, the couple volunteer, delivering food to shut-ins. A still
spry Joe Kopechne, 81, mows lawns for a pair of widows in the neighborhood.

When she talks about her daughter, Gwen Kopechne remembers the little
things. The way Mary Jo bugged her to stop smoking. The way she loved to
dance the polka.

“Her and her father used to take to the floor. She was a fun girl,” Gwen
Kopechne says.

“She lived a good life.”

The Kopechnes’ lingering regret is Kennedy’s long silence. The senator
never told the Kopechnes he was sorry.

He also never acknowledged driving the car.

The Kopechnes learned he was the driver from news reports.

Recently, the Kopechnes also learned their daughter’s body was shipped from
Massachusetts to Pennsylvania in a body bag on the floor of a plane.

“We were outraged,” says Gwen Kopechne, 76, a retired cosmetics saleswoman.

The Kopechnes close their ears to persistent rumors about their daughter,
rumors she was having an affair with Kennedy, rumors she was pregnant.

“We heard a lot of things, but we can’t do anything about them,” says Gwen
Kopechne. “My daughter is not here to defend herself, so we just have to
bear it.”

During the years, the Kopechnes have received thousands of letters from
people around the world. Many letter-writers insist a cover-up took place
— the privileged Kennedy should have been charged with manslaughter
instead of just leaving the scene of the accident.

For that, he received a two-month, suspended, sentence.

Some of the letters stored in the Kopechne basement are from Kennedy’s
mother, Rose — the 103-year-old matriarch of the Kennedy clan. Ethel
Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow, also has written.

“Ethel Kennedy is a very nice, charming woman,” Gwen Kopechne says. “I’ve
talked and written to Rose.”

`I know my girl’

Mary Jo was a slender, 5-foot-4 blonde with a pretty, lightly freckled
face. When she was young, her mother says, she wanted to be a nun. After
graduating from college, she gravitated to politics. It was the early
1960s, and the glow of Camelot was still strong.

In 1964, she took a job in Robert Kennedy’s Washington office, eventually
becoming a member of the “Boiler Room” gang, a core of trusted Kennedy
aides who compiled intelligence reports on how delegates to the 1968
Democratic National Convention intended to vote.

Mary Jo remained on Bobby Kennedy’s staff until it dissolved after his
assassination June 5, 1968. It was a reunion of some of the Washington gang
that brought her to Chappaquiddick the weekend of July 18, 1969.

The Kennedys, says Gwen Kopechne, valued Mary Jo. She knew the family and
had been invited to other Kennedy parties at Hyannis Port and Nantucket.

“They knew what they had,” Gwen says. “Those Boiler Room girls were very
smart, and they knew they were losing them. That’s why they threw them
those parties.”

The Kopechnes refuse to believe their daughter was drunk or on her way to
the beach with the married Kennedy. They say they believe Mary Jo was
asleep in the back seat of the car and never knew Kennedy was driving.

“I know my girl,” says Gwen Kopechne. “By 11 o’clock, all she thought about
was going home and going to bed. She was an early bird.”

Like his wife, Joe Kopechne believes Kennedy was on his way to the White
House when he took a wrong turn that changed his life.

“No question about it,” says Joe Kopechne, a retired insurance salesman. “I
really believe he would have been the next president if this didn’t happen.
Just on the name alone.”

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