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Jake Kennedy, Christmas in the City founder, dies at 65 of ALS

More than 500 guests attended a surprise 65th birthday for Jake Kennedy, founder of Christmas in the City, in January at the Seaport Hotel. With his wife Sparky next to him, he held up a street sign that was presented to him by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
More than 500 guests attended a surprise 65th birthday for Jake Kennedy, founder of Christmas in the City, in January at the Seaport Hotel. With his wife Sparky next to him, he held up a street sign that was presented to him by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.Bill Brett for The Boston Globe

Jake Kennedy, who provided presents to Greater Boston’s poorest children for 30 years through the Christmas in the City charity he and his wife launched, died Tuesday in his Salem, N.H., home of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

He was 65 and had been the fourth member of his family to be diagnosed with ALS.

“There’s been so much progress in ALS research,” he told the Globe late last year, nearly three months after being diagnosed in September.

Known for his unstoppable optimism, he looked forward to a time when others wouldn’t face a similar fate.

“I’m very optimistic,” he said as he prepared for last year’s Christmas in the City charity event. “I believe a cure will be found soon. I want to stay positive, and I want everybody else to stay positive.”

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The Kennedy family has had an uncommon and unwelcome familiarity with ALS, and has devoted uncounted hours to raising money for research, helping those who have been diagnosed, and researching treatments.

Kennedy’s father, Christopher Kennedy, and Kennedy’s brother James both died of ALS.

Christopher, a former vice president for administration at Northeastern University, was 66 when he died in 1989. Jimmy died less than eight years later, at 31.

Meanwhile, Kennedy’s brother Richard, who lives in Cohasset, has been diagnosed with ALS. He had run in more than 30 Boston Marathons to raise money for ALS research and became president of the Angel Fund, which has raised millions more.

And Jake Kennedy’s son Zack is a researcher focusing on ALS.

“My dad was my hero. I looked up to him when I was 1, when I was 10, when I was 18,” Zack said. “He wanted to work harder than anybody else and he would leap at the chance to help someone.”

Because of that, spending long hours conducting ALS research against a backdrop of repeated family diagnoses is never a chore, he added.

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“I’m just grateful,” Zack said. “To be able to help people and take on hard work is a joy for me, and that’s because it truly was a joy for him.”

Jake Kennedy was a physical therapist and a founder of Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy, which started in Boston and now also has locations in Braintree, Cohasset, Needham, and Watertown.

“He wanted to help people,” said his wife, Sparky. “He knew he’d be a great PT. He loved the field.”

Thirty years ago, the couple started Christmas in the City, an all-volunteer charity that gives presents to children who otherwise would have none.

In addition to his wife, son, and brother, Kennedy leaves a daughter, Alyse of Toronto; two other sons, Dean of Gainesville, Fla., and Chip of Salem, N.H.; three sisters, Kathy Becker and Judy Higgins, both of Newburyport, and Mary Kate of Burlington, Vt.; two other brothers, Christopher Jr. of Braintree and Robert of Weymouth; a granddaughter and a step-granddaughter.

A service will be announced.

At the 30th annual Christmas in the City gathering last December in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh stood next to Jake and Sparky Kennedy on the stage.

“Many of you in this room might not know him personally, but he does this because he loves you,” Walsh said of Jake. “He loves every single family in our Commonwealth, in our country. . . . He is my hero.”

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For Kennedy, though, the children were then and always had been the true focus of attention.

“We’d be idealistic to say we’re going to solve the homeless problem,” he told the Globe in 2002. “But everything you give these kids stays with them. I want them to think back to when they were 8 years old and had a great holiday.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.