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With ‘unimaginable grace,’ Jake Kennedy kept giving of himself to others after an ALS diagnosis

Jake Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, founded Christmas in the City.
Jake Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, founded Christmas in the City.Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

Given the harsh path amyotrophic lateral sclerosis had cut through his family, Jake Kennedy got a genetic test five years ago to see if he was predisposed to the progressive disease.

The results were devastating, but Mr. Kennedy was never one to be devastated by any news.

"He said, ‘If I die tomorrow, I would have been the luckiest person on earth,’ " his son Zack recalled. “He kept saying just how lucky he was and how blessed of a life he had.”

Mr. Kennedy was 65 when he died of ALS Tuesday in his Salem, N.H., home, and was the fourth in the family diagnosed with the disease. His father and a brother had previously died of ALS, and another brother has been diagnosed as well.

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In September 2019, about four years after his test, Mr. Kennedy learned he had ALS — and a much more aggressive case than his father and brothers faced.

“He handled it with unimaginable grace,” said Zack, who lives in Worcester and is a medical researcher studying ALS, a neurological disease that can leave cognitive skills intact while the body loses its functions.

A humanitarian through a lifetime of one-on-one encounters and on a grand scale as well, Mr. Kennedy had, with his wife, Sparky, founded Christmas in the City, which provides a holiday celebration for Greater Boston’s neediest children and parents, including those in homeless shelters.

What began in 1989 as a gathering of about 165 grew to more than 6,000 last year, requiring the space afforded by the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.

“Jake Kennedy dedicated his life to ensuring children in Boston had a smile on their face, and that a helping hand was given to struggling families not only during the holidays, but year-round. He will always mean so much to our city,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who added that Mr. Kennedy had showed “us all what it means to be a city of neighbors.”

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Though Mr. Kennedy was best known for Christmas in the City, the annual event was only one facet of his philanthropy, which even was part of the Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy practice he helped found.

After the office’s work hours were over, he let high school athletes with limited financial resources work out on the business’s gym equipment for free, and often led some on training runs through the city.

He also ran the Boston Marathon 37 times, raising money for various charities over the years. Since his diagnosis, he had launched the Jake Kennedy ALS Fund.

Mr. Kennedy let no opportunity for giving pass. If there was leftover pizza after a meeting, he drove through the city looking for someone who could benefit from a free meal.

“It’s like God took a quality from every good person on this Earth and dropped it into his soul and blood,” said his son Dean of Gainesville, Fla.

Jake Kennedy was born in 1955 and grew up in Quincy, a son of Christopher Kennedy, who had been a dean and vice president for administration at Northeastern University, and Mary Devine.

Mr. Kennedy’s father died of ALS in 1989 at 66, and his brother James was 31 when he died several years later.

Another brother, Richard of Cohasset, has been diagnosed with ALS.

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Mr. Kennedy’s mother was a schoolteacher before her children were born, and was again once they were old enough to fend for themselves.

Known for her patience, “she never would get mad at the parents, never would get mad at the kids,” Mr. Kennedy told the Globe for his mother’s obituary in August 2019.

That was among the traits he inherited.

“He was never mad at me, he never got mad at the kids,” his wife recalled. "I could be angry at him, and he would never get angry back. I always said, ‘I’m having an argument with myself.’ "

Mr. Kennedy’s mother also raised her children to value and practice compassion. “So we started reaching out to other kids at a very young age, because they might not be as fortunate as us,” Mr. Kennedy recalled last year.

He graduated from North Quincy High School and received a bachelor’s from Northeastern before going to Boston University for a master’s in physical therapy. A few years later, he cofounded Kennedy Brothers Physical Therapy.

“He loved the hands-on approach to be kind to people. He just made such a difference in people’s lives,” his wife said.

They married in 1982 after meeting a few years earlier in heavy traffic returning home from Cape Cod. He was driving a friend’s station wagon. She pulled alongside to call out that his turn signal was blinking endlessly.

“Things couldn’t be pinker because I didn’t turn off my blinker,” he later wrote in one of many poems he composed for her on every occasion. One time he scrawled a Mother’s Day poem in chalk on their driveway and rose at 4 a.m. to redo his efforts when a rainstorm washed away his words.

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“My dad loved my mom — loved, loved, loved my mom,” said their daughter, Alyse of Toronto.

Alyse added that her father “was very much about accepting people for who they are. It’s such a beautiful gift to have lived with someone who taught us to really love people.”

“We were told to never settle for anything less than the best version of yourself that you can see,” said Mr. Kennedy’s son Chip of Salem, N.H.

A service will be announced for Mr. Kennedy, who in addition to his wife, four children, and brother leaves 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 stepgranddaughter.

While running Christmas in the City, “Jake welcomed everyone,” said Alexandra Lee, a former physical therapy patient who noticed presents lying around the office and started volunteering more than 25 years ago.

Mr. Kennedy “never said no” to suggestions of ways to improve the celebration, she said. “That capacity to love and share resonates — that combination of generosity and humility that you don’t often see.”

Though his health was failing last December, Mr. Kennedy smiled broadly as children raced into the convention center for the celebration, recalled Joe Baerlein, a friend and former patient. "He said to me, ‘This is one of the best days of my life.’ "

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In recent years, Mr. Kennedy added what he called Monday Mania to hand out leftover gifts right after Christmas in the City. The extra day drew thousands more who were financially strapped, but couldn’t be part of the main event.

As the Kennedy family gathered last December for the event, Dean noticed it was the first time in ages all of Mr. Kennedy’s children were under one roof. He asked if his father would mind skipping Monday Mania to set aside a few extra family-only hours.

"He said, ‘There are 6,000 more people coming. Do you think I’m going to miss that?’ " Dean recalled. “That just describes who he was. We all knew he didn’t have much time on this Earth, but you were crazy if you thought he was going to change who he was down to the core.”


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