BOB KALINOWSKI, STAFF WRITER
She was the pretty, young woman who drowned in a Chappaquiddick Island waterway in 1969 after U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge and fled, derailing his presidential aspirations.
But that’s about all most people know about Forty Fort native Mary Jo Kopechne, surviving family members say.
They believe she deserves a better legacy.
Kopechne’s family hopes a book they’re about to be release, entitled “Our Mary Jo,” and a scholarship fund started in her name at Misericordia University in Dallas will finally give her a proper identity.
“Mary Jo always got lost in the shuffle of Chappaquiddick,” said co-author William Nelson, whose mother was Kopechne’s first cousin. “In many ways, her book and her scholarship kind of take Mary Jo back from Chappaquiddick. They finally bring her back to the Wyoming Valley.”
Unlike anything ever written about Kopechne, the book doesn’t dwell on Chappaquiddick and how Kopechne died. In fact, it’s barely mentioned. The 180-page book focuses on her life, the potential of the rising political operative, and the impact of her death at age 28, her family says.
The granddaughter of two coal miners from Luzerne County, Kopechne would go on to help craft and type the speech Robert F. Kennedy delivered in March 1968 announcing his bid for the presidency.
Kopechne, whose family roots in the Wyoming Valley can be traced back 250 years, is buried at St. Vincent’s Cemetery on Larksville Mountain, the fifth generation of her family laid to rest there.
Nelson’s grandfather, and then his father, served as cemetery caretaker. He grew up in a house across the street and used to frequent the cemetery, which became a constant destination for media crews fascinated with the case.
“People with cameras were always coming up to me and asking, ‘Do you know where Mary Jo is at?’” recalled Nelson, 43, who was born three years after Kopechne died. “That began the mystery for me.”
At the time of her death, Kopechne was an up-and-coming Washington, D.C. political operative, who worked tirelessly on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign before his assassination. She later met her political idol’s brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, whose car crash off a bridge near Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, ended her life and his chances to become president like his brother, John F. Kennedy.
As Kopechne remained trapped in the submerged car, Kennedy left the scene and didn’t report the crash until 10 hours later. The senator, who claimed he “panicked” after several attempts to dive in the water to rescue her, quickly pleaded guilty to a minor fleeing the scene charge and received no prison time. He remained in office until his August 2009 death at age 77.
For 46 years since the tragedy, Kopechne’s name has been synonymous with what became known as the “Chappaquiddick incident.” An advertisement for the book says, “Millions of people know Mary Jo Kopechne’s name, but only a few people know who she was.”
The inspiration for the book came about three years ago when Nelson and his mother were sifting through the hundreds of sympathy letters sent to Kopechne’s parents from around the world. Some of those letters are being revealed publicly in the book for the first time.
The book glosses over how Kopechne died because “Chappaquiddick was never about Mary Jo,” Nelson said.
“Chappaquiddick was about a lot of other people — who did what and what they didn’t do,” Nelson said. “We came to the realization Mary Jo owes Chappaquiddick no debt.”
Pursuit of justice
The book explains that Kopechne’s parents died — Joseph in 2003 and Gwen in 2007 — believing justice was never served in Kopechne’s case.
“Let’s be honest. They felt slighted by what happened,” Nelson said during a recent interview at his sister’s house in Wilkes-Barre. “They lost their only daughter and nothing really was ever done.”
Nelson wrote an excerpt about their agony printed on the back cover of the book: “I watched Gwen and Joe — Mary Jo’s parents — wait their entire lives for justice for their daughter. They died without receiving it, perhaps because they were waiting on justice based on her death. We seek justice of a different kind — a justice based on her life.”
The book and scholarship do that, Nelson said.
The Kopechne book coincidentally is being released just after the recent dedication of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. Several representatives for the institute did not return emails and calls about whether any members of the Kennedy family planned to purchase the book or donate to the scholarship fund.
“Do I have any thoughts on Mr. Kennedy? No,” said Kopechne’s cousin and co-author of the book, Georgetta Potoski of Plymouth.
In addition to being cousins, Potoski, 72, and Kopechne, who would have turned 75 this year, were great friends growing up.
Before their deaths, Kopechne’s parents gave Potoski all the sentimental things they kept of Kopechne, including old photos, the hundreds of sympathy letters and even a carbon copy of Robert Kennedy’s speech that Kopechne helped create.
“We had all these photographs, all these stories and all these letters,” said Potoski, chairwoman of the Plymouth Historical Society.
From them, the book, “Our Mary Jo,” was launched.
“This book introduces Mary Jo Kopechne to a world that has long remembered her, tussled over her and felt bereft for not ever really knowing her,” Potoski said. “It is told here by the family to whom she belonged and to whom she was loved.”
In the book, family members describe a tale of one mother that always made her kids wave to Kopechne while passing the cemetery where she’s buried.
“Now, their children do the same thing,” Potoski said. “In addition to all the reasons this book was written, it is certainly for all those people who still wave to Mary Jo.”
Kopechne ‘changed history’
Nelson and Potoski are well aware Kopechne’s death greatly influenced American politics.
“Her death changed history, because ...,” Nelson said, before his mother jumped in.
“Because Ted Kennedy never made it into the White House,” Potoski said.
The family thinks 46 years later, people are still fascinated with Kopechne. A certain mystery surrounds her because almost all media stories focused on Kennedy, they said.
“People are still upset about what happened in 1969. People thought something should have been done for her,” Nelson said. “We wanted it to be a living breathing thing. We didn’t want it to be a plaque on a tree or something.”
They chose to start scholarship in her name at Misericordia University in Dallas because of her deeply held Catholic beliefs.
The first 250 people to pledge $100 toward the scholarship will receive a copy of the book. Additional copies will be sold for $24.95. It will be released only locally at first because “this is where Mary Jo was from,” Potoski said.
The $25,000 in initial seed money from donors will ensure that a fundraising protocol is established so the scholarship will “continue to benefit students in perpetuity,” said Michele Zabriski, director of development at Misericordia.
Any student in good academic standing who demonstrates a financial need will be eligible for the annual scholarship. Kopechne’s family said they wanted as many students as possible to have a chance at receiving the financial aid in Kopechne’s memory. The annual gift, they said, will make sure her legacy lives on — only now in a positive way.
After the first prototype of the book was handed over to the family recently, Nelson took his 6-year-old son, Gavin, to Kopechne’s grave. After explaining to his son who Kopechne was, he took a photo of Gavin holding the book at her grave site.
“It was very symbolic of the reasons why we wrote this book,” Nelson said. “To show future generations who this woman was and what she would have accomplished.”
The family of Mary Jo Kopechne, the Forty Fort native killed in 1969 when U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, has written a book called “Our Mary Jo.” Proceeds of the book will go to a scholarship fund in Kopechne’s name at Misericordia University in Dallas.
The first 250 people to pledge $100 toward the scholarship will receive a copy of the book. Additional copies will be sold for $24.95.
Donations can be sent to:
Mary Jo Kopechne Scholarship Fund
301 Lake St.
Dallas, PA 18612
ONLINE: Information about the scholarship can be found on the “Mary Jo Kopechne Scholarship” page on Facebook.