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Jean Kennedy Smith (1928–2020), last surviving Kennedy sibling

by Linnea Crowther

Jean Kennedy Smith was the last surviving sibling of President John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963) and a diplomat who helped with the effort toward peace in Northern Ireland.

Eminent family

Smith was the second youngest of the nine Kennedy children, with only brother Ted Kennedy (1932 – 2009) coming after her. As a student at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, she befriended two young women who would later marry into her family and become her sisters-in-law: Ethel Skakel married Bobby Kennedy (1925 – 1968), and Joan Bennett married Ted.

As for Jean, she married Stephen Edward Smith May 19, 1956. Smith was an executive with his family’s shipping business and later became a financial adviser. The couple worked together on JFK’s presidential campaign, continuing campaign work Jean had been involved in since her brother’s earliest congressional campaign in 1946.

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Advocacy and diplomacy

Just as her sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was an advocate for people with disabilities via her organization, Special Olympics, Jean also worked to help people with disabilities when she created Very Special Arts in 1974. An affiliate of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, VSA has a mission “to provide people of all ages living with disabilities the opportunity to learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts.” In conjunction with VSA, Smith co-wrote the book “Chronicles of Courage: Very Special Artists” with George Plimpton in 1993. In 2011, President Barack Obama presented Smith with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work.

Also in 1993, Smith was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ireland by President Bill Clinton. She served in the position for almost five years, helping bring about peace with Northern Ireland by recommending the U.S. grant a visa to Sinn Fein’s president, Gerry Adams. Though this move wasn’t universally praised, it was lauded by many, and Smith was honored as Irish American of the Year by “Irish America” magazine in 1995 and granted honorary Irish citizenship by Irish President Mary McAleese in 1998.

Smith on how she wanted to be remembered

“What did Lincoln say to that question? ‘I have planted a rose where only thistles grew.’ Isn’t that good? Let’s see: that I helped the peace process.” —from a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times

What people said about her

Full obituary: The New York Times

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