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Vicki Kennedy opens up about the Kennedy Institute

As the Senate institute prepares to open, she talks about her late husband’s vision and the value of civics education.

Vicki Kennedy.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Vicki Kennedy.

Ahead of the opening of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, Victoria Reggie Kennedy spoke about the wishes of her husband before he died in 2009, the challenges of creating the institute, and her hopes for its future.

So how are you doing? I imagine the final days before opening a major institution must be a little crazy.

Well, I’m great. My husband was inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor [March 12]. It was incredibly moving and a wonderful moment. The hall was packed. There were three former secretaries of labor, two Republican and the current Democrat, a beautiful video. You saw this sweep of Teddy’s legislative career and his joy in the process.

Can you share what the senator told you about this project before he passed?

It’s important to understand we planned this long before he got sick. Back in 2002 it started. He had been in the Senate for 40 years. He planned on being there for 40 more. We gathered family and friends and talked about what he wanted his lasting mark to be. The important thing to Teddy was it not be a stand-alone university. He wanted it on the campus of UMass Boston. He wanted a full-scale replica of the US Senate chamber. He felt something happened to you when you became a US senator. You started to think about something bigger than yourself.

Is that one way it will differ from the JFK Library and other political libraries?

This is like no place else in the world. It is not about Teddy, it’s about a place that he loved, the US Senate. He had an idea that if people could understand the workings of it, that they would be engaged in our government. He had such reverence for the presidency. His brother was president, but he would joke that everyone understands the presidency, but it’s the Senate that’s in Article One of the Constitution.

Why is our civics knowledge so poor?

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We learn in different ways. Our young people are experiential learners. Everybody can’t go to Washington, be in the Capitol, have a participatory experience. At the institute, they will. I was reflecting on my own civics education. I was a voracious reader, but I don’t think I had a rigorous civics education. If I grew up in a different household, I am not sure how much exposure I would have had.

Are there already examples of students learning at the institute?

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One of the more moving stories I’ve heard was about a junior in high school, an AP history class, negotiating vigorously [in their mock session] to get their legislation passed. At the end of the period they got it passed, and one of the students said, “Will everybody join me in singing ‘God Bless America’?” They left with this deep connection to their country. They understood how hard it was to legislate and had a new respect of the opinions of others.

Maybe the real Senate could benefit from seeing this.

I have actually had sitting senators say that. They joked maybe they should come through.

What’s your favorite part of the institute?

The use of technology while having the face-to-face interaction. The essence of Ted Kennedy was about face-to-face interaction. He had the first website in Congress. But he believed in the face to face.

I imagine the replica Senate chamber is also significant for you.

It gives you that majesty and awe of the place. And once you leave the chamber, the pledge wall gives you a chance to learn how you will go back into your community and make a difference.

There were reports early on you were over budget, and some questions about the public financing. Can you talk about that?

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We’ve been a mix of private and public. Our funding has gone well. This is really a public purpose here. We’re talking about educating citizens to be good citizens. It’s exciting. We are strong for a startup. We’ve got a solid endowment, and it’s growing.

Were you surprised Ted Kennedy Jr. ran for the state Senate in Connecticut?

No, it was always in the back of his head. He saw himself as a dad first. He wanted his children to be older.

So could you imagine him one day in the US Senate like his dad?

If there’s one rule I’ve learned in this family, it’s never speak for somebody else!

Was replicating Senator Kennedy’s Senate office always part of the vision?

It was not something Teddy planned. He saw this as an hommage to the Senate. But when we took down his office, it was obviously emotional and powerful. There was a sense that we need to preserve this. So much happened in that office. From a museum point of view, it was quite powerful, so we preserved it, right down to the tennis balls under his desk for playing fetch with the dogs.

Edward M. Kennedy Institute

Related coverage:

- Joe Biden recalls Ted Kennedy as mentor who made a difference

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- Behind the Kennedy Institute experience with Edwin Schlossberg

- Obamas to attend Edward M. Kennedy Institute dedication in Boston

This interview has been edited and condensed. Doug Most can be reached at dmost@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost