Remembering Senator Kennedy: A Personal Look

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In the wake of Edward Kennedy’s death on Tuesday, Massachusetts is dealing with the loss of one of its most outsize figures. In addition to being a politician and scion of the nation’s most iconic family, Kennedy also had a quiet history of advocacy that spread across the country and the world – and may be one of his greatest legacies.

In 1978, Boris Katz was presented with a byzantine series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Although his infant daughter was severely ill and in need of medical care that could only be found outside the USSR, the family was unable to obtain approval for their exit visas. In a situation common to many Soviet Jews, they were accused of having been exposed to sensitive state information, obviating the possibility of their departure.

The situation changed, though, when a powerful advocate stepped in on their behalf. After negotiating their release with Brezhnev himself, Ted Kennedy met with Katz and his family to explain to them that they would be allowed to leave. In the months and years that followed, Kennedy continued to aid the family, who were already beginning to thrive in their new home.

Although Kennedy was able to help Katz find a job at a software company, he didn’t take the offer – he’d already accepted a position at MIT. In this capacity he would one day create START, an information access system that would be used in both the American space program and the early days of the World Wide Web. He is currently a principal research scientist here at CSAIL, and the amount of questions that START receives globally numbers in the millions.

As Kennedy’s death is globally mourned, it is moving to consider alongside the loss the many ways in which we as a lab, and as a society, are richer for the gifts he left behind.

If you’d like more information about Boris Katz or his family’s story, please find further coverage from CNN (text and video), The Boston Globe (video) and NPR (audio; transcript available).