I’ve been coming to NY a couple of times per year, once for Country Director meetings and another time for regional meetings. For the former, we always have an evening devoted to dinners with various board members who are particularly interested in getting to know more about what is going on in the field. These are usually prominent supporters of our organization who are quite engaged in what we do. The conversations are mutually beneficial in that we also learn a great deal about how things work on their end.
In the past I’ve had dinners with NY- based CEOs, investment bankers, etc. I’ve never had an evening that wasn’t a good time but I have to say that this recent dinner was particularly enjoyable.
I could tell you that she was an ambassador to Ireland from 1993 to 1998 or that President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year. I could mention that she began a non-profit to help people with disabilities. Although these things are impressive and a testimony of her service to her country, her notoriety has more often been linked to her family. Jean Kennedy Smith is the last surviving sibling of JFK, Robert and Ted Kennedy.
The dinner was in a relatively small Italian restaurant near 61st street. I chose to walk even though the weather was chilly and it was over 25 blocks from the hotel. I’d been cooped up in meetings all day and I think I would have driven a dog sled for 200 kilometers to attend if necessary just to be outside and get some exercise.
Upon arrival at the restaurant I met up with a colleague who was also attending the dinner and the manager escorted us back to a private room. In a rather thick Italian accent he offered us a selection of Italian wines and said that Jean would be arriving shortly. When he returned to with the drinks he proceeded to tell us that the restaurant was a favorite hang-out of the Kennedys and he seemed rather attached to the family. As the evening progressed, I could see why they would like the place. In addition to preserving their privacy, the staff took excellent care of us and the food was amazing.
Within a few minutes Jean arrived. Since ambassadors tend to keep their titles for life, I wasn’t sure if she was to be addressed as Ambassador Smith or Jean or what. It quickly became apparent that she would be Jean and the evening would be informal. She’s rather short and as it happened, of the six people invited the three tallest country program directors were standing before her. She made some sort of comment about our organization’s tendency to hire giants and we all decided it would be best if we took our seats at the table.
The conversation flowed easily. We discussed the elections which were the next day. There are few more political families than hers so you knew that it would come up. She’s a very intelligent woman with a sharp wit. At the same time she kept the focus on us rather than herself which, though appropriate, was unfortunate. I could have spent the evening listening to stories about her life. She’s either been a participant or had a front row seat in some amazing historical events, including being present at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Sirhan Sirhan shot and fatally wounded her brother Sen. Robert F. Kennedy after he had won the Democratic presidential primary in California.
The dinner reminded me of many I’ve had in Italy. It was long and the communication was animated. The food was incredible from the parmesan appetizer to the limoncello and espresso at the end. As the evening concluded, we emerged from our private room and made our way through the restaurant towards the door. When I asked her if we could take a quick photo she said absolutely and proceeded to reach for her little make-up kit. She looked up at me and said with a straight face, “You don’t want me to look old do you?” After one photo she asked to inspect it. She said I looked too big and that I was hardly next to her. So I crouched down a bit and put my arm around her and we took another one.
As we emerged into the brisk night air, we all said our good-byes. The formal handshake that would certainly be protocol for almost anyone with her title and background was replaced by a hug. She’s a wonderful woman with a new fan.