Aug. 26, 2009— -- Sen. Ted Kennedy, who died late Tuesday from brain cancer at the age of 77, said his life was about purpose and passion. His purpose was politics, but he found his passion in his marriage to wife Vicki.
In calm waters and rough seas, Vicki Kennedy, 55, was at her husband's side, anchoring his public and personal life with her trademark smile and strength. She is the woman you've seen in nearly every photo of Ted Kennedy for the past 17 years -- on the dock, on the sailboat, at the speeches and political rallies. And in the final months, in the final hours, Vicki Kennedy was at the senator's bedside.
"She's a great source of that optimism and confidence for him," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., told ABC News last year. "And no one does a better job of protecting him, standing up for him, giving him good advice, even when he doesn't want to get it."
Vicki Kennedy's devotion to her husband was clear in the e-mail she sent to friends and family when he was diagnosed with brain cancer last year. She brought them up to date on the senator's condition and the "curveball" they'd been dealt, but also gave a sense of her own resilience, including a joke that he was making her crazy.
"Teddy is leading us all, as usual, with his calm approach to getting the best information possible," she wrote. "He's also making me crazy (and making me laugh) by pushing to race in the Figawi [sailing race] this weekend."
The Kennedys issued a statement about the senator's death today, calling him first "a husband."
"We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," the statement said.
By all accounts, Vicki Kennedy was at the center of Ted Kennedy's heart; she was his rock, a soul mate he discovered late in life.
"Finding the love of his life … really did supply something that had been missing, and it showed," said Boston Globe political reporter Tom Oliphant.
Ted and Vicki Kennedy's Love Story
Victoria Reggie Kennedy first met Ted Kennedy when she was a summer intern in his Senate office. But she had known of the Senator her entire life. Her father, Edmund Reggie, was a Louisiana judge and lawyer for many years. He was also a staunch Democrat and longtime friend and supporter of the Kennedy family.
Though they occasionally saw each other at family events, it wasn't until her parents' 40th anniversary party in 1991 that their friendship deepened into a love affair. Vicki Kennedy -- who is known as one of the few Kennedys who can cook -- was busy preparing food in the kitchen and Ted Kennedy helped out.
"He hung out in the kitchen while I cooked," she told the New York Times in 1992, "and he helped me pick vegetables off the vine for the salad."
At the time, Vicki Kennedy was a divorced mother of two young children living in Washington. She had a career as a respected lawyer, and spoke shyly about how she and the senator found a friendship changing.
"We had a very old-fashioned kind of slow-paced courtship where he'd come over for dinner and kind of hang out and help the children with their homework … and it a gradual deepening of a family friendship into something that was a lot more," she said in a 1992 interview with Boston television station WCVB.
Ted Kennedy proposed to her one night at her favorite opera -- La Boheme. They were married in 1992.
"During our courtship I realized I didn't want to live the rest of my life without Vickie," Ted Kennedy said in the same WCVB interview." And since we have been together, it's made my life a lot more fulfilling. I think more serene."
Ted and Vicki Kennedy: A Life of Family and Purpose
She is seen by many friends as the person who found a way to anchor Ted Kennedy. For years since divorcing his first wife, he had been something of a notorious bachelor, who once said his private life was a disappointment to his friends.
In 1992, Vicki Kennedy said her husband's past never worried her.
"I know the real man, and I have known the real man and I have known him through my family and I've known the kind of person he is," she said.
Friends say as soon as they married things changed.
"I think a lot of people look at Vicki Kennedy and say 'She saved him. She straightened him out.' And I think that's to a large degree true," said Susan Milligan, ABC News consultant and co-author of the biography "Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy." "But I think it's also important to remember he chose her… He chose to marry someone who was very much his equal."
"I think that in these last years since he married Vicki and settled down, I think that he has really dedicated himself to the causes of his legislation…but also to the family," ABC News consultant Cokie Roberts said today on "Good Morning America."
Vicki Kennedy is a longtime children's safety advocate, well suited to a life of family and purpose.
She is president and co-founder of an organization called "Common Sense about Kids and Guns," which is devoted to reducing gun violence involving children. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and a regular lecturer.
Vicki Kennedy as Political Advisor
Vicki Kennedy was also her husband's closest political advisor. She was adept at managing the demands of his large family, and his large political network.
"She was very much interested in policy, and knowledgeable about policy. I think he relied on her a lot for her advice," said Milligan.
"She has a great interest in the substance of the Senate and the business that he is engaged in," Sen. Dodd said in a 2008 interview with ABC News.
"Whether it's children or healthcare, fighting for working people, all of those issues she brings a strong passionate interest -- it's not just an intellectual interest, it's a passionate interest," Dodd said.
That may be why there is rampant speculation in Boston that Vicki Kennedy might be a logical successor to her husband in the U.S. Senate.
"Vicki Reggie is a political person. It would not surprise me if she decided to run for the Senate. She knows politics. She knows substance. It's normal for someone who's been that involved to want to stay involved," said ABC News' Cokie Roberts.
But political decisions will come later. For now, she will grieve.
More than anything else, friends and observers agree, she was his one true love.
"His face would change when he would talk about her, almost involuntarily smile when he was talking about Vicki," Mulligan said.