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What Jake Kennedy taught us

Jake Kennedy, who with his wife, Sparky, was the force behind Christmas in the City, gave joy to homeless children, and represented the best of us.

Jake Kennedy with his wife, Sparky KennedyNic Antaya for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

If you walk the Commonwealth Mall that stretches through the Back Bay, from the Public Garden to the Fens, you’ll come across memorials to the great and the good.

So where do we put the statue for Jake Kennedy, one of Boston’s greatest humanitarians?

He did not have the bloodline of so many for whom statutes are dedicated. He grew up in a large, rambunctious family in Quincy where there were enough kids to field a baseball team and everybody had a nickname. Jake’s brother, Richard, for example, is known as Ratt. Don’t ask.

But the Kennedys were star-crossed. First, Jake’s dad died of ALS, then his brother, Jimmy, who everybody called Squirrel.

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The Kennedy kids knew they had a strong chance of getting ALS yet soldiered on, raising money for ALS research in Squirrel’s name, then, after he was diagnosed four years ago, Ratt’s name, and then, after he was diagnosed last year, Jake’s name.

Ratt, soul of the Angel Fund, keeps punching and is absolutely determined to be there when his pal, the great Dr. Robert Brown at UMass Medical School, delivers the cure.

Jake wanted to be there, too, but, unfortunately, the form of ALS he had gave him less time. He died Tuesday, and you should know Boston has never had a finer citizen.

When Jake and his wife, Sparky, who was destined to marry into the family if only because she had such a cool nickname, decided on a lark 31 years ago that they would host a Christmas party for homeless kids neither they nor anyone else could have imagined what it would become. They had 165 kids the first year. Last year, there were 6,000 kids at the Christmas in the City party at the Convention Center.

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In the interim, people from every walk of life signed onto Jake’s army of volunteers. Hundreds and eventually thousands couldn’t imagine their holiday season without helping out.

It went from being a humble act of kindness to becoming perhaps the most profound expression of generosity and compassion in the city. It also became an uncomfortable, yearly reminder, an annual indictment in fact, of how the numbers of homeless children have expanded exponentially in a rich corner of the richest country in the world.

And now, cruelly, way too early, Jake is dead.

Not before he taught us, though. He taught us, perhaps most crucially, humility. He taught us that whatever we have, somebody has far less. He taught us that we judge ourselves and the place we call home by how we treat the least among us. More than anything, Jake taught us kindness.

Long before Black Lives Matter became a phenomenon, Jake knew Black lives matter. He went out of his way to hire people of color at his physical therapy clinic on Franklin Street downtown.

At every Christmas in the City, it was painfully obvious families of color were disproportionately represented.

Jake helped and empowered people, whatever their color. His empathy rested in knowing that a few generations before, his tribe, the Irish, lived in those same apartments in Southie and Dorchester and Roxbury and Charlestown.

Jake believed poverty was mostly a function of bad timing and bad luck. And he believed that those who were luckier or had better timing owed something, even if that meant only to make Christmas a little happier for a homeless child.

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Last January, when Jake turned 65, they threw a big party for him. People who worked for him and/or benefited from his generosity turned out to tell him they loved him. It was a living wake. Jake drank beers, hugged and kissed everybody, and vowed to run a 38th Boston Marathon.

The last months were hard, and Sparky and their four kids were positively heroic, as Jake required round-the-clock care.

Jake liked to quote Lou Gehrig, the great baseball player for whom the disease that killed him is named, saying he was the luckiest man alive.

Now Jake Kennedy is gone, and the luckiest are those who knew him and his kindness.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.