Aug. 28, 2009 -- Tonight, the people who knew the late Ted Kennedy best -- his family and colleagues -- remembered one of the most polarizing and influential lawmakers of the last half century.
"A Celebration of Life," held at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston where Kennedy's body has lain in repose, brought luminaries from both sides of the partisan political aisle. The exclusive service was a prelude to Saturday's funeral mass and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Colleagues praised him as a man of class, loyalty, sympathy and humor, with a deep love of life and country. The evening was filled with tearful laughter and fond anecdotes of the senator sailing, laughing and comforting others during hard times.
"He bore more hurt and heartache than most human beings are ever asked to endure, but at every opportunity he brought hope and joy and optimism to more people than we will ever know," Paul Kirk Jr., chairman of the library's foundation, said at the opening of the ceremony.
Kennedy's nephew, former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy, D-Mass., gave an emotional speech about the role his uncle played as a father figure in a family hit by so many devastating losses, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his father Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., one of Kennedy's best friends in the Senate, memorialized him as a friend who always remembered to call after every triumph and had a booming laugh to buttress life's painful moments.
Dodd recalled a few weeks ago, Kennedy had called himwhen he was coming out of surgery for prostate cancer.
"Well," Dodd said Kennedy roared into the phone. "Between going through prostate cancer surgery and doing town hall meetings, you made the right choice!"
He praised Kennedy as one of the best senators the nation has ever produced and part of every important law passed in the last half century.
"Some people born with a famous name live off of it," said Dodd. "Others enrich theirs. Teddy enriched his."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kennedy had opposing political views that never got in the way of a friendship based on true admiration.
McCain recalled Kennedy's "infectious laugh of his that could wake the dead and cheer up the most beleaguered soul."
He praised Kennedy as a fierce opponent, a strong ally, and a man of his word.
"When we were agreed on an issue and worked together to make a little progress for the country on an important issue, he was the best ally you could have," McCain said. "You never had even a small doubt that once his word was given and a course of action decided, he would honor the letter and spirit of the agreement."
Kennedy "Changed the Course of History
Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts' junior Democratic senator to Kennedy for 25 years, recalled the vigorous support Kennedy had for his 2004 campaign for president. He said that it was Kennedy and his wife Vicki who sat with him in his kitchen when he conceded the race to George W. Bush.
"He changed the course of history," said Kerry, citing Kennedy's stamp on legislation that created the Voting Rights Act, Martin Luther King Day, health insurance for children and laws protecting women's rights and the disabled.
Kerry described Kennedy as a "gifted artist and an incurable romantic" and became emotional when talking about his vision of Kennedy in heaven, on a schooner with his brothers.
"Sail on, my friend," he said. "Sail on."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that he came to Washington to fight Ted Kennedy. Little did he know that 33 years later, he would have a "reverance" and admiration for the man that he described as one his best friends.
He fondly recalled how Kennedy would blow cigar smoke at his during arguments-- his way of riling up the Mormon politician.
"I miss fighting in public and joking with him in the background," he said.
Vice President Joe Biden talked about the role that Kennedy played in his early career, offering guidance and encouragement in Washington. More personally, he spoke of the comfort Kennedy offered when the young senator lost his wife and daughter in an automobile accident.
Later, he convinced him to stay in the senate and continue his political career.
The night was punctuated with music, including one of Kennedy's favorite songs, "The Impossible Dream" from the show "The Man of La Mancha" sung by Tony award winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Later in the program the Boston Community Chorus sang a powerful rendition of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."
Other notable figures in attendance included "Meet the Press" host David Gregory, Maria Shriver, Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.
Long Lines To Say Goodbye
On Saturday, Kennedy's body will be moved to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica for a funeral mass, where President Obama, a friend and onetime acolyte, will deliver a eulogy.
From there, his casket will be flown to Arlington National Cemetery, where he will be buried steps from his brothers.
Tens of thousands of citizens came to pay their respects to the eight-term senator who died from brain cancer at his Hyannis Port, Mass. home late Tuesday night. He was 77.
The crowds were so large that the Kennedy family kept the library open into the wee hours of Friday morning and extended viewing hours. Some people waited two, sometimes three hours to say a personal goodbye.
"Just our whole family is deeply grateful for this outpouring of love," Kennedy's wife Vicki told ABC News. "That is why I wanted to come out here and thank as many people as I could."
For the Kennedy family, the sharing of emotion and grief has been a source of comfort. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., told ABC News that his uncle "would have loved this."
"There would have been nobody as moved as Teddy," he said. "One of the blessings of his terminal illness -- he got to take a kind of victory lap. He spent so many years taking hits for his beliefs. It was a kind of revelation to see this outpouring."
During the three-hour procession from Hyannis Port to Boston Thursday, thousands of mourners lined the streets and crowded highway overpasses. Boston residents applauded as the cortege wound its way through the center of the city.
All through the night, a military and civilian honor guard -- composed of friends, family and colleagues -- kept vigil over the body, in keeping with a Kennedy family tradition.