Remembering an afternoon at the Kennedy compound, hearing about Rose Kennedy's faith

Todd Van Beck's picture

We all knew it was just a matter of time.  The horrible diagnosis of brain cancer basically sealed Senator Edward Kennedy’s fate.  I for one was surprised that he survived as long as he did – but then he had access to two of the finest hospitals in the world in Boston.

There was a time in my career, in the good old Loewen days, when Loewen purchased and operated the Doane, Beal & Ames Funeral Home, which is a very well known funeral establishment on Cape Cod.  In August of 1990, one month after I started working for the Loewen Group, I was invited to do a series of seminars for the Doane, Beal & Ames properties located on the Cape.

I had been a student in Boston and was well versed with the territory of Cape Cod, and the Cape was and is breathtaking.  When I arrived at Logan I rented a car and south I went, then over the Sagamore Bridge which is the gateway to Cape Cod.  I could taste the lobster as I drove.  Good stuff!

As I watched Senator Kennedy’s funeral ceremonies my memories flew around in my head like it was yesterday.  And for Todd Van Beck, yesterday and my association with Doane, Beal & Ames made for a once in a lifetime experience.

The head of Doane, Beal & Ames was a man named Bob Studley, and he was one of the most admirable and kind hearted human beings I have ever encountered.  He was a large man, had a wonderful smile, a tremendous sense of humor and had basically been the Kennedy family funeral director since the Ambassador had died in 1969.  Also Bob Studley was a stellar embalmer.  I respected him greatly and he and I became good buddies.

I probably made two or three trips a year to the Cape to do projects for Bob and his staff.  His right hand men were Ed Blut and Allan Copithorne, and the entire staff was really top notch – it was always an anticipated event to travel to the Cape and work with DB&A.

I remember one clergy seminar I was giving and during the lunch hour Bob came over to me and said “Do you have a minute?”  “Sure” was the response.  Bob walked me out of the church where we were meeting and introduced me to a man named Tommy.  Tommy was driving a black Lincoln town car and Bob said “Get in and I will follow you.”  I had no idea where we were going.

Tommy and I were now alone in the town car and the conversation began.  Tommy explained that he had been and still was the private chauffeur for the Kennedys.  I asked him how long he had been employed by the family and he said 43 years!

Being somewhat of a history buff, I immediately began firing him questions.  Tommy was a complete gentleman and answered them with kindness and patience.  Eventually we arrived at the Kennedy compound gate.  There were two black cars in front of the gate, with big burly men wearing black sun glasses with wires coming out of their ears.  Tommy rolled the window down said the magic words and the gate was opened.

Bob Studley was right behind us and he knew the Secret Service men by name, so instant access for him too.  The two automobiles circled in front of the main Kennedy house, we got out and the housekeeper and Tommy walked us up the front steps.  I looked to my right and far down on the porch was a wheel chair with an old lady wrapped up in blankets sitting in the Cape Cod sun.  The housekeeper whispered to me “That’s Mrs. Kennedy, be quiet, we can’t disturb her.”  I could not believe it.  Here I was, the Iowa farm boy, now just 20 feet from Rose Kennedy who was at that time 102 years old.

Quiet we were and into the house we went.  The Kennedy home was far from opulent, in fact I would describe it as terribly simple.  Green walls, photographs everywhere, old furniture, creaky floors.  I sat on John F. Kennedy’s bed, stood by the grand piano, sat in the private theater which obviously had not been used for a generation, and basically was treated like an old friend from out of town.

We went to the back yard and saw John and Jackie Kennedy’s home, across the street was Robert’s home and down the way was Ted Kennedy’s home.  It was certainly a once in a lifetime experience and one that actually today people don’t believe me when I tell them about it, even though I have pictures to prove it.  I can understand their disbelief because I couldn’t believe it myself when it happened, and had Bob Studley not used his considerable influence by being the Kennedy families' funeral director there would have been no way TVB would have made it to the gate – let alone walk through the front door.

However, what I was thinking about as I watched that wonderful Roman Catholic Funeral Mass take place in that old historic church, which I used to walk and drive by as a student and later as an educator at the New England Institute,  that old church located in that interesting area of Beantown known as “Mission Hill,” as I watched the funeral ceremony my memory of my visit to the Kennedy compound focused ultimately not on the buildings, or of seeing Mrs. Kennedy, albeit at a distance, but instead on a religious conviction.

In my conversations with Tommy I ultimately asked the question, “Where you here when President Kennedy was assassinated?”  Tommy looked at me for a moment and replied that indeed he was on the property that fateful day.  Here is his story:

Mid morning on the 22nd a Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who lived in Hyannisport phoned the compound and asked the secretary if anybody knew of any trouble in Dallas where the President was traveling.  The Justice said that he had just caught the tail end of a report on the radio which he thought said something about shots being fired at the President.  Tommy said that Mrs. Kennedy was out golfing, and the Ambassador, who was an invalid due to a severe stroke, was bedridden upstairs and was being tended to by a private nurse.

Tommy and the housekeeper turned on the television and radio and nothing was being broadcasted.  Then out of nowhere all the electricity went out.  Tommy said he went outside to check the electric connections and the sight that greeted him was ten Secret Service black sedans parked in the circle driveway.  Tommy was instructed to go back inside, and in short order one of the top Secret Service men came in and broke the news that the President had been shot in Dallas, and the reason they turned off all the electricity was they did not want the President’s invalid father to accidentally hear the news over television or radio.

In the meantime a contingency of Secret Service men went to get Mrs. Rose Kennedy from the golf course.

Tommy said that in about half an hour Mrs. Kennedy arrived home and went directly upstairs to tell her husband the horrible news.  She was in the bedroom for about fifteen minutes and people downstairs could hear the old man weeping.

Finally Mrs. Kennedy came downstairs.  While she was informing her husband of the shooting and now death more family members had arrived at the compound.

Mrs. Kennedy asked everyone to come into the dining room and, according to Tommy, who was present, this is what she said to her family:  “We have terrible trouble in Dallas.  Jack has been killed today.  Today Jack was called by our Lord to give an account of himself as we all will be asked to do someday. Today was Jack’s day.  We all will have to give our account to the Lord.  Our family has survived other losses and we will continue forward.  I am now leaving for Washington, and our family will be kept together – no matter what.”

Tommy had tears in his eyes when he told me this story and I am not ashamed to say that tears were rolling down my cheeks as well.

I watched the funeral Mass for Edward Kennedy, and watched closely the family and thought, Mrs. Kennedy’s religious conviction is alive and well in the Kennedy clan.  I thought of the continued, ceaseless round of tragedies that has befallen this uniquely American family, and as they took the Senator’s remains to Arlington my thoughts returned to Tommy and the fateful day I had skirted the Kennedy world and learned something about the power of a solid religious conviction and belief.

Having to give an account of yourself to the Lord, whether you are the President of the United States, a United States Senator or whoever.  That was Rose Kennedy’s approach to coping with the losses in her life.

Makes one stop and ponder the big questions of life – does it not?

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB


judyfaaberg's picture

Just what I have been waiting for. Thank you, Todd. I knew you'd have something profound to say.

Judy Faaberg, DP, CCP

Bob Studley was a compassionate, caring professional. I worked with and for Bob for many years and respected him immensely. Tommy Roderick was a man in motion, always on the move and doing something nice for someone when not engaged in his regular work duties. Thank you for reminding me of both of these men.