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For Jake Kennedy, it really is a wonderful life

More than 500 guests gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of Jake Kennedy at the Seaport Hotel Saturday. Kennedy and his wife, Sparky, flanked Governor Charlie Baker at the party. Bill Brett for the Boston Globe.

Every year, around the holidays, I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

It is, like Andes mints, a seasonally permissible guilty pleasure.

Like “Goodfellas” or “The Godfather” or “Schindler’s List,” whenever “It’s a Wonderful Life” comes on, I stop what I’m doing and watch it until the end, with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and Karolyn Grimes, aka Zuzu, laughing into the credits.

I spend the holidays with my in-laws in New Jersey, and, for whatever reason, I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” a half dozen times in four days last month.


Maybe because I didn’t want to listen to my brother-in-law tell me the Yankees will have a 15-game lead on the Red Sox at the All-Star break.


Maybe because the country, heading into an impeachment trial, seems so polarized, angry, and divided like no other time in my life.

Maybe because that movie — schmaltzy as it is — is just what we need when our universe seems overwhelmed by greed and meanness and absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But there’s a downside. As uplifting as the film is, there is, like after a sugar rush, a crash, a painful return to reality. Nobody is like George Bailey. Nobody is that kind. Nobody is that selfless. Nobody has a wife that loyal. Nobody has a family that decent.

And then, as if to refute all that, on Saturday night, Jake Kennedy walked into the ballroom at the Seaport Hotel, where some 500 people serenaded the city’s most unassuming good guy with a raucous chorus of “Happy Birthday.”

Sparky and Jake Kennedy prepared to cut the birthday cake. Bill Brett for the Boston Globe/For The Boston Globe

It was like George Bailey, standing in his living room as his friends rushed toward him, bearing love and money.

Governor Baker was there. Mayor Walsh was there. But this wasn’t about big shots. In fact, the big shots were there precisely because Jake Kennedy has spent so much of his life caring about ordinary people, the poor, the homeless.


Christmas in the City, the extravaganza that Jake and his wife, Sparky, created 30 years ago for homeless children, is more than a charity. It is living proof that decency and compassion and empathy remain core values in this pretty screwed up country.

Jake Kennedy is George Bailey, if George Bailey ran marathons and was a physical therapist and had a constitution bearing on superhuman.

Jake is the only guy I know who could, on the same day, run 26 miles, drink 26 beers, and talk to you like it’s a Tuesday morning.

The Kennedys are the John Updike novel that Updike hasn’t written yet. They are larger than life, in their victories, and their setbacks. ALS has stalked them like a ruthless phantom. It took Jake’s dad Chris and his brother Jimmy. His brother Rich, who everybody calls Ratt, was diagnosed with ALS in 2016. Jake was diagnosed with it in November.

I am wary comparing Sparky Kennedy to Donna Reed. If you look up “shy” and “retiring” in the dictionary, Sparky’s picture is not there.

After her husband was diagnosed with ALS, Sparky’s attitude was, “We will beat this. And we’re going to raise a million dollars.”

The Jake Kennedy ALS Fund will support research at UMass Medical School, where Dr. Robert Brown’s work to cure ALS is bearing fruit. One of Dr. Brown’s researchers is Zack Kennedy, one of Jake and Sparky’s four kids.


At the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” after George Bailey’s brother proclaims him the richest man in town, Jimmy Stewart opens the book in which Clarence, his guardian angel, has inscribed: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

Jake Kennedy is the richest man in Boston, in ways that have nothing to do with money, and he sure has a lot of friends.

As the fund-raising begins in earnest, Jake is training for his 38th Boston Marathon.

“I’ve got to keep running!” he yelled into my ear Saturday night.

Jake Kennedy has miles to go before he sleeps.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at