09/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ted Kennedy, Public Service and Our Collective Charge

Not long ago, my great-uncle, former Senator J.D. Melcher (D-Mont.), shared a memory of Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy that I particularly enjoyed. It happened in 1994, after J.D. had left the Senate but was still consulting on the Hill, and Kennedy was the only one of a group of senators to stand up for then-Congressman Michael Huffington (R-Calif.) during a discussion of his expensive senatorial bid.

Of course, Kennedy was partially poking fun at himself by comparing his political advantage (family name and fortune) with that of Huffington. And the story parallels the multitude of remembrances today praising Kennedy for his consistent work toward bipartisanship.

To me, though, the anecdote is also a reminder that what we read in the papers and hear in sound bites on TV is never the whole story about a politician's work. And for that reason, no analyst or scholar can ever define the true legacy of a public servant. Every observer will make his or her own judgment on the efficacy and significance of Kennedy's 47 years in the U.S. Senate, and impressions of his personal history may differ drastically across generational lines.

This Kennedy is the only one of his generation who has been in office during my lifetime. I never saw his name in the papers for anything other than legislative accomplishments and presidential endorsements. His earlier missteps were something to be discovered on Wikipedia and passed by without notice by this generation who tend to separate personal life from political life when making character judgments, and learn from such missteps when others may judge someone's life just on one or two events.

Jim Scheibel, former mayor of St. Paul, Minn. and an active collaborator on the Kennedy Serve America Act, remembers Kennedy's commitment to public service as a focus on issues and a better American for all. "It is fitting that the Serve America Act passed and signed this year was named in his honor. He believed people must be involved and accept responsibility to create a better country and world."

Scheibel was lucky enough to know the senator, an honor I could only dream of. Kennedy even hosted a celebration in Scheibel's honor when he was named director of ACTION (which later became part of the Corporation for National Service) in 1993. "When I think of Ted Kennedy I think of fighting hunger, immigrants, childcare, healthcare, fair taxation," says Scheibel, pointing out that Kennedy's work was devoted to legislation that impacted individual people more than anything. "His legacy was about action, not titles. And yet he loved and understood the world of politics and how to get things done."

The closest I ever came to Ted Kennedy was passing his office when visiting the Capitol with uncle J.D. one summer. As a bright-eyed teenager with a community service requirement coming up at school the following year, I remember that trip to Washington as the first time I heard John F. Kennedy's famous words about service and duty to one's country. That singular quote, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," changed my attitude from one of dreading the requirement to embracing it. To this day, every time I hear it I get goosebumps.

Today, as we remember the youngest Kennedy brother's life and achievements, I'm renewing my pledge to support the Serve America Act. I'm no longer a naïve teenager with a community service requirement to fulfill. But that early experience encouraged me to work as a full-time volunteer after college, and I'm fortunate to have a circle of friends deeply committed to service and social justice issues. So, kudos to all of my friends now serving in AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, Teach for America and the Green Corps. You are the change I wish to see in the world, and proof that public service is not just the legacy of one American family. It's our collective charge.

Thank you, Ted Kennedy, for your leadership. Our generation is lucky to have known you, if only for a little while.