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RFK’s family, UMass in talks about possible project to honor his legacy

The Kennedy brothers — John, Robert, and Ted — posed in Hyannis Port in this undated photo.Associated Press

When the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate opened in 2015 next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, there was one famous brother who was left out of the picture.

But that could change if talks involving the family of Robert F. Kennedy and the University of Massachusetts come to fruition.

Representatives of UMass and Kennedy’s family have been discussing a possible project that could honor the legacy of the former US senator and attorney general at the UMass Boston campus, on the Dorchester peninsula of Columbia Point. The memorial project could involve a building — a new structure, for example, or naming rights for an existing one — though no decision has been made.


The talks are still in the early stages. UMass Boston is essentially at its limit in terms of borrowing capacity, making it tough for the school to finance a new building. UMass bonds helped finance the $78 million EMK Institute, along with $38 million in federal funds, and the institute agreed to cover the debt service payments.

UMass president Marty Meehan acknowledged that the university system has been in talks with the Kennedy family. “We’ve had some preliminary discussions that are exciting but, I stress, very preliminary,” he said.

Meehan declined to elaborate, other than to say the talks could lead to a substantial gift to the school and that he’s interested in completing a deal.

Phil Johnston, a Democratic strategist and longtime Kennedy ally, would probably play a key role: He sits on the UMass Board of Trustees and on the board of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, an organization with offices in Washington and New York. Both Johnston and Meehan have sons named after RFK.

Johnston said several ideas are being discussed but they “haven’t taken form yet.”


“There have been communications between the university and the Robert Kennedy family and the Robert Kennedy Center for Human Rights that have been going on for a long time,” Johnston said. “No decision has been made yet. Those of us at UMass have great regard and respect for Robert Kennedy’s legacy, and we would love to have a relationship, but we’ll see as we move forward.”

Chris Kennedy, one of Robert F. Kennedy’s 11 children, said his mother, Ethel Kennedy, and other family members are open to a range of options.

“Certain intermediaries have been active to bring together some sort of partnership between the University of Massachusetts and the Kennedy family in a way to honor Robert Kennedy,” he said. “And we are very appreciative of that interest.”

One goal would be to use the establishment of a memorial project to attract potential financial donations that would be given in RFK’s honor.

“We would then want to work shoulder to shoulder with the university to try to obtain the wide range of gifts that might be available,” said Chris Kennedy, who lives in the Chicago area and is chairman of the family’s investment firm, Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises.

Any memorial project would be likely to feature RFK’s papers — personal and professional documents from his life, particularly when he was a top adviser to President Kennedy and when he was in the Senate, representing New York. Some of those papers, from RFK’s tenure as attorney general in his brother’s administration, are currently on display at the JFK Library.


A spokeswoman for the JFK Library said it’s the repository for more than 1,700 cubic feet of RFK-related documents, including papers from the 1930s and condolences related to his assassination in June 1968 in Los Angeles. Of those documents, roughly one-third have been processed and are available to the public for research. Hundreds of sound recordings and film reels are also housed at the library, along with thousands of photos.

Robert F. Kennedy shook hands with a crowd as he toured Long Island.UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL/FILE 1964

The JFK Library spokeswoman said the organization has not been involved with any recent discussions about the potential donation of those materials.

Chris Kennedy said there are other potential donors of papers and other objects related to his father who could come forward. And he said that his mother, Ethel Kennedy, has a “great deal of personal material” that never went to the JFK Library.

“She wants to make sure that people have access to them,” he said. “If we could all figure out a way to work together, that would be terrific.”

A Columbia Point location would be ideal, he added.

“It would be great to have whatever material my mother has land near the John F. Kennedy Library and the EMK Institute,” he said. “Obviously, Teddy had an impact on a lot of us as a surrogate father.”

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas; Edward Kennedy died in 2009.

“The notion that some of my father’s personal material could be near his brothers’ would be great,” Chris Kennedy said. “That resonates with all of us.”


The Kennedy Library declassified thousands of documents in 2012, including many concerning RFK’s role in advising the president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, said many more of RFK’s documents remain unavailable to the public.

“The family has always hoped for some type of institutional recognition of Robert Kennedy, and his remaining papers are a part of that,” said Kornbluh, whose organization focuses on declassifying government documents. “It does seem like building a room or a facility or a Robert F. Kennedy Center at Columbia Point would bring the history of these three brothers geographically together. I truly hope that it works out.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.