It was an Irish wake with an edge.
Tales about Teddy Kennedy's sailing and lousy singing voice got big laughs at his Friday night memorial service at Boston's JFK Library — but it was a call to use his death as a spur to pass health care reform that ignited the passion of those gathered to honor him.
Kennedy's family and friends, led by his nephew Rep. Joe Kennedy and Senate brother-in-arms John Kerry, celebrated the Massachusetts Democrat's 77 years by vowing to carry on his fight, despite GOP warnings against politicizing his passing.
"He labored for the right to give health care to all Americans and we'll do that in his name," said Kerry, who recalled Kennedy's struggles preparing himself for public appearances during his year-long battle with brain cancer.
Joe Kennedy likened his uncle's passion for sailing to his passion for health care reform, pounding the podium as he repeated Kennedy's advice to him.
"Don't ever, ever, ever, ever give up," the former Massachusetts congressman said to a burst of applause.
The star-packed audience – including a dozen U.S. Senators, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Lauren Bacall, Tom Brokaw and the whole of the Kennedy clan erupted with applause again at the conclusion of a Ken Burns video in which Kennedy predicted his reform bill would pass.
The hard edge of the health care comments contrasted with nearly three hours of tearful, poignant, often hilarious tales of Ted.
Biden remembered Kennedy’s kindness and support after his wife and young son were killed in a car crash in 1972. “He crept into my heart and before I knew it, he owned a piece of it,” said Biden. “He took on the role of being my older brother — I couldn’t understand why he was going out of his way for me.”
Though Kennedy “bore more hurt and heartache than most humans are ever asked to endure,” he was fun, said Paul Kirk, the former DNC chair who was one of Kennedy's closest friends, summing up the view from the podium, which overlooked his flag-draped coffin.
Kennedy's best Republican friend in the Senate, Utah's Orrin Hatch, recalled seeing Kennedy in an Elvis costume, performing skits during his office Christmas party.
Former Iowa Sen. John Culver, a friend from Harvard, told a terrifying tale of sailing with Kennedy in a storm and suffering a bout of sea-sickness.
"I'm hanging over the side of the boat and he's screaming at me," Culver recalled. "I realized then I was in something out of Capt. Ahab."
John McCain, another GOP pal, recounted an afternoon on the Senate floor when the pair of them engaged in a debate on a forgotten issue neither cared about just for the fun of the fight.
"Ted and I shared the sentiment that a fight not joined was a fight not enjoyed," he said.
"He was good company, excellent company," McCain added. "The place won't be the same without him."
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick revealed a previously unknown Kennedy anecdote: Kennedy quietly spread dirt from his brothers' graves at Arlington National Cemetery on the tomb of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin in 1995.
Kennedy will be buried at Arlington tomorrow after a mass at his family's church in Boston.
Kerry remembered the time when Kennedy's prized Portugese water dogs Sunny and Splashed barked at Biden, who was in his house making a strident political point.
"It was Biden's first-ever rhetorical withdrawal," Kerry joked as the vice-president roared with laughter.
The first call Sen. Chris Dodd got after he emerged from prostate cancer surgery this month was from Kennedy -- who said going under the knife wasn't the worst thing a senator could do this August.
"Between prostate cancer surgery and doing town halls -- you made a great choice," Kennedy said, according to the Connecticut liberal.
"Let me... tell you what Teddy's secret was -- people liked him," Dodd added.
Speaker after speaker lauded Kennedy's second wife, Vicki Reggie, for helping to calm and focus her husband after years of hard-drinking and partying.
He was a different man after they met in the early 1990s, said Hatch.
Joe Kennedy said his uncle was a surrogate father for all of the Kennedy children robbed of their own fathers by assassins.
"Every single one of my brothers and sisters needed a father and we gained one through Teddy," said the former rep, the eldest son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy.
"John and Caroline were no different," he added. "For so many of us -- we just needed someone to hold on to -- and Teddy was always there to hold on to."
Kennedy, grey mane waving as he spoke, choked up after talking about how his uncle bucked him up during an accident-filled sailboat race.
"He could just sense in anyone when they needed a hand," he added. "I'm here today because I loved my uncle very much -- very much."
Caroline Kennedy, speaking in the library named for her father, concluded the proceedings by remembering the history trips her uncle dragged the family on through Washington, Brooklyn and old Boston.
"As we drove through the Boston that he loved and saw the thousands of people who loved him back I realized that it was our final history trip together," she said, voice cracking. "Now Teddy has become a part of history."