Utah, Massachusetts Democrats shared long friendship

Kennedy and Owens » Two pols like-minded about compassion, son says.
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Sen. Edward Kennedy had one Utah tie that goes back much further than his well-publicized friendship with Sen. Orrin Hatch.

The late Rep. Wayne Owens had a close personal, professional and political kinship with Kennedy that spanned four decades.

"They did connect in a way that was a mystery to a lot of Utahns," said Steve Owens, Wayne's son and a Salt Lake City lawyer.

It started in 1963 when Owens organized a Utah visit by President John F. Kennedy two months before his assassination in Dallas.

Owens later worked on Robert Kennedy's Senate staff, then managed his presidential campaign in the West. At RFK's 1968 funeral in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, Owens watched over the casket as an honorary pallbearer.

The Utahn became Sen. Ted Kennedy's chief-of-staff the following year, the year of the Chappaquiddick accident. Because Kennedy had lost his driving privileges, Owens picked him up at his Washington home and drove him back from the Capitol each day.

"They were completely bonded on compassion and [the principle] of opportunity for people struggling," Steve Owens says.

When Owens first became a congressman in 1972, Kennedy asked how he could help.

"My dad would say, 'Stay away, that's how you could help me,' " Steve Owens remembers. "Ted joked the only campaign he ever really lost was the one my dad ran for him," Kennedy's 1980 presidential race.

When Kennedy came to Salt Lake City, Owens routinely took him to meet with the president of the LDS Church, recalled Steve. And Kennedy also visited the Owens family on their LDS mission in Montreal.

Kennedy loved Utah and sometimes brought along his brothers' children for family vacations. In 1979, the two families spent a week together in the Cataract Canyon between Moab and Lake Powell.

Steve became friendly with Patrick Kennedy, the senator's son and a now a Rhode Island congressman, and JFK's daughter Caroline. Also on the trip was Owens' youngest son, who was named after the senator.

Robert Redford joined the group downstream, and the raft carrying him, Owens and Kennedy got stuck on a sandbar as it began to get dark. Steve Owens says his father called to passing boats for help.

"He said, 'Hey, over here! I have Ted Kennedy and Robert Redford' and the voice came back, 'Yeah, and I have Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew here,' and they went off."

Eventually, someone stopped to help.

Kennedy "had a warmth and genuineness that was completely intoxicating," Steve Owens says. "Love him or hate him, the guy was a power."

The Owens-Kennedy friendship lasted to the end. Ted Kennedy spoke at a Washington, D.C., memorial for Owens in late 2002, about two weeks after the Utah congressman died of a heart attack on a beach in Israel, where he was organizing Middle East peace talks.

"Ted came," recalls Owens' son, "and gave a loud, funny storytelling talk that meant a lot to our family."