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Thomas Kennedy, 63; state senator turned obstacle into opportunity

State Senator Tom Kennedy served in the State House for two decades.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2008

At age 19, Thomas P. Kennedy was washing a third-floor window at his seminary in Newburgh, N.Y., when he fell backward. The accident left him a quadriplegic.

Unable to administer Communion, he gave up his plan to become a Catholic priest. Days after the 1970 accident, Bishop Fulton Sheen visited his hospital bed and counseled him to embrace whatever new path lay ahead, according to his family. Mr. Kennedy found a new calling in public service.

A lifelong Brockton resident, he was elected to the City Council in 1978 and later spent more than 20 years at the State House, serving as the representative of the Ninth Plymouth District in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2008.


“He simply accepted it. He carried on, and the faith carried him,” said his sister Mary Kennedy Bardsley, recalling the weeks her brother spent learning how to feed himself again after the accident at the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate seminary, where he was studying.

Mr. Kennedy, who chaired two committees in the Senate and had been vice chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, died of pneumonia Sunday in Brockton Hospital. He was 63.

“I would like to describe him as Brockton’s Franklin Roosevelt,” said his friend and longtime campaign worker Mark Linde of Brockton. “He didn’t want you to see in him any kind of weakness. He was about integrity and honesty, just somebody who lived his religion, lived his faith, and lived his community. He loved Brockton, and Brockton loved him.”

Mr. Kennedy drew tributes from throughout Beacon Hill.

“Tom’s perseverance in overcoming his disabilities served as an inspiration for all those who knew him and for many more who are also working to surmount their own challenges in life,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement. “The people of Massachusetts are better off thanks to his faithful and admirable service to his community and constituents over the last 30 years.”


State Auditor Suzanne Bump, a friend of Mr. Kennedy, said he was devoted to his constituents, as if he were their priest. “He took all of those spiritual qualities and really pastoral abilities into his public service and was just one of the most caring people I knew,” she said. “People flocked around him. They wanted to say hello, to share news, or ask for help with a problem.”

Senate President Stanley C. Rosenberg called Mr. Kennedy “a great friend, colleague, and public servant” who “devoted his life to serving the people of his community and was proud of his working-class roots.”

In a statement, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo said Mr. Kennedy was a “kind and decent man who I could rely on for advice and counsel.”

Mr. Kennedy did not cast himself as a voice of the disabled and was always photographed from the waist up for campaign photos. “When I came here, I looked around and saw there have been people who have been deeply involved in the rights of disabled for years,” he told the Globe in 2008. “I have no business coming in and challenging them for the leadership role.”

Mr. Kennedy was “a true champion and public servant,” said Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2008

When Mr. Kennedy lost his House leadership post in 1996 during a power shift and found himself in a small basement office, he rejected any attempts to cast him as a victim. “I recognized that’s the way the game is played,” he said in 2008.


In May, Mr. Kennedy vowed to fight for legislation that would require ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to offer some wheelchair-accessible vehicles. “It’s fair and reasonable to say invest in a few vans for your fleet so you have the ability to treat a customer in a wheelchair the same as you would treat any other paying customer,” he told the Globe.

Born in Brockton, Thomas P. Kennedy was the youngest child of Robert A. Kennedy Jr., an engineer, and the former Mary Louise Cruise, a nurse. She died in 2011 at age 101.

Mr. Kennedy graduated from Cardinal Spellman High School in Brockton in 1969.

His parents refused to put him in a nursing home after the accident, his sister said, and his mother learned to help Mr. Kennedy, who was 6-foot-4, into his wheelchair each morning. “They pushed him and expected him to do things,” Bardsley said.

Friends and cousins also offered assistance.

“The house would be bursting at the seams with high school friends,” she said. “It was just amazing to me. He was buoyed by those friends.”

Among his devoted companions was Kevin Jones, a friend dating back to first grade who brought him coffee at his Brockton home almost every Sunday for the last 45 years and assisted him with his routines, Mr. Kennedy’s family said.

In 1974, then-Brockton Mayor David Crosby gave Mr. Kennedy a job as the city’s ombudsman. Mr. Kennedy told the Globe the job changed his life.


“It made me feel I was worth something to someone, somewhere,” he recalled in the 2008 interview. “At that time, I wasn’t able to do anything. I could barely write my name.”

Bill Carpenter, Brockton’s current mayor, said in a statement that the city “mourns the loss of a true champion and public servant. . . . He was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, his Catholicism, and his city.”

Mr. Kennedy received undergraduate degrees from Massasoit Community College and Stonehill College and a master’s in public administration from what is now the Harvard Kennedy School.

He received many accolades during his career, yet one of his proudest moments came in 1978, when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the order he aspired to join, named him an honorary oblate, his family said.

In 2006, Mr. Kennedy married his longtime companion, Clare Holmgren, a nurse who first knew him in high school and reconnected with him many years later, his family said.

In addition to his wife and his sister Mary, who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Mr. Kennedy leaves another sister, Ann Kennedy Thibault of Indianapolis, and a brother, Robert III of Brockton.

A funeral Mass will be said at 11 a.m. Tuesday in St. Edith Stein/St. Edward’s Church in Brockton.

Burial will be among relatives in St. Francis Cemetery in Maitland, Nova Scotia, where Mr. Kennedy spent many summers as a boy and later personally oversaw maintenance of the small family graveyards.


“Notwithstanding the daily suffering occasioned by the complications of his accident,” Mr. Kennedy’s family said in a statement, “Tom considered himself to be one of the most fortunate people in the world — due to the love, kindness, and care shown to him by those around him.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com. David Scharfenberg of the Globe staff contributed to this report.