Members of the Kennedy family gathered with former staff members and elected officials on a blustery stretch of Boston's oceanfront Friday to break ground on the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
The institute will feature a replica of the Senate chamber where the Massachusetts Democrat served for 47 years until his death from brain cancer in 2009. It will be located adjacent to John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in the city's Dorchester section.
Kennedy's widow, Victoria Kennedy, said it's fitting that the two centers will be set next to each other, because it was John Kennedy who inspired his younger brother Edward's enduring love of the Senate and public service.
She said she hopes the institute will do the same thing for future generations.
"My husband didn't want a memorial to himself or his achievements," she said. "He wanted to create a place that would spark an interest and nurture the belief that public service can be a noble endeavor."
The groundbreaking comes as the Kennedy family's future political legacy is up in the air. There are no members of the family serving in Congress now. Edward Kennedy's son, former U.S. Rep Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, chose not to seek re-election last year.
Patrick Kennedy attended the groundbreaking, but did not speak publicly. The late senator's two other children, Edward Jr. and Kara, also attended.
Planning for the center had begun before Kennedy's death. Organizers have already raised $60 million in private donations and pledges, and $38 million more will come from federal funds.
The institute is intended to offer an interactive experience, according to planners.
Visitors will be offered a virtual chance to participate in the effort to break a Senate logjam over the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They will also learn the consequences of what would have happened if the bill had not become law.
Edward Kennedy gave his first speech on the floor of Senate in support of the bill.
In a testimony to Kennedy's long reach, more than 100 of his former staff members attended the event.
Among the elected officials on hand were Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd.
Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who won the seat held by Kennedy during a special election last year, said he keeps a picture of Kennedy on his office mantle. Brown had run for office promising to block the health care bill that Kennedy supported.
Despite their differences, Brown said he admired Kennedy's work ethic.
"I understand the large shoes I have to fill, but one thing I always appreciated was his dedication to service, his sense of humor and the fact that he was so zealous in the way that he fought for what he truly believed in," Brown said.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick recalled Kennedy as a political fighter. Despite an effort at bipartisanship at the groundbreaking, he criticized what he called "decades of poisonous rhetoric about how government is bad."
"My greatest disappointment with the conservative movement so-called is that it's sapping the optimism out of our country," the Democratic governor said. "Ted Kennedy was an optimist, he not only understood, but embodied the uniquely American blend of optimism and effort."
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recalled how he once got a call from Kennedy on a request Menino had made, long after he had forgotten about it himself.
"This guy Ted Kennedy was a very special guy," Menino said. "We'll never have a guy like him ever again in this business."