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Melody Miller, Kennedy’s trusted aide, dies at 77

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There are the Kennedy family loyalists, and then there was Melody Miller.

As a college intern, she helped Jacqueline Kennedy manage the endless bags of condolence letters and gifts that poured in after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963. Five years later, in as Robert F. Kennedy’s aide, she was the last person to turn off the lights in his office in the Senate after he too was assassinated.

She then spent nearly 40 years working for the youngest Kennedy brother, Edward M. Kennedy, known as Ted, with a short list of official titles and an endless series of unofficial duties: Senate speechwriter , presidential campaign adviser, personal confidant and guardian. Once, when a man called threatening to kill the senator, she kept him on the phone for 45 minutes, until the FBI could trace the line.

She helped organize the 100th birthday of Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch, and handled the press at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in New York. She filled the touch football teams in Hickory Hill, the Kennedy enclave in Northern Virginia, and assembled presents for the Kennedy children on Christmas Eve.

She knew the secrets and intimate details. She was aware of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s 1996 wedding plans to Carolyn Bessette, information hidden even from many family members. She knew that Ted Kennedy had provided a confidential back channel between the Soviet leadership and the Reagan White House. She also knew that the senator was one of the few people Elizabeth Taylor allowed to call her Liz.

Ms Miller, who was found dead Nov. 8 at her Washington home, spent her entire career working for the Kennedys, becoming an unofficial member of America’s most famous political clan. She was 77 years old.

His brother, Rockley Miller, was confirmed dead, from a heart attack.

Ms. Miller’s first encounter with the Kennedys was during her senior year in high school, in Arlington, Virginia. Inspired, she made a ceramic bust of the president, only to blow it up in the oven.

She was a weekend intern for a New Mexico Democrat, Rep. Joseph Montoya, whose office passed the story of her enthusiasm to the White House. President Kennedy himself asked to meet her.

“The door opened and there was President Kennedy,” Ms. Miller recalled in a 2008 interview for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. “Incandescent was the only word I could use for him. There was a glow all around him, the summer tan, the chestnut hair, the wonderful way he moved.

They discussed her sculpture – she had redone it and brought it to the meeting – and her desire to work on her next campaign. He signed her copy of his book “Profiles in Courage” and gave her a bracelet commemorating her service on the torpedo boat PT-109 during World War II.

“It was one of the most precious 20 minutes of my life,” she told the Miller Center.

After the president’s death, she worked for his widow and then for her younger brother Robert’s Senate campaign in 1964. After her victory, she interned in his Capitol Hill office.

By then she was in college, at Penn State, but she was already marking the territory as a die-hard Kennedy. Whenever she returned home on vacation, even for just a few days, she made sure to make time for it, if only to run some errands or take care of the mail. Or she could travel to Hickory Hill to round up some of Robert Kennedy’s many young children.

It was the 37 years she spent working for Ted — first as a press and legislative aide, then as a deputy press secretary — that made her a full-fledged Kennedy. Always perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed, Ms. Miller radiated the easy grace so long associated with the family, not to mention their easy and confident competence.

Anything could happen in Senator Kennedy’s office, and anyone could come and visit. Ms. Miller handled it all in her first decade on the job, when she ran the front desk. Once, a passerby slapped her hard in the face, for no clear reason. Another time, actor Paul Newman dropped by to say hello to the senator and ended up chatting with Ms. Miller.

“I don’t mean to brag,” she told the Miller Center, “but I knew how to defend him on issues, explain his issues, juggle 628 phone calls a day and put people on hold and come back to them and resume the conversation where I had been before.

All the while, his unofficial duties have expanded. Senator Kennedy listened to her and took her concerns about her intention to run for president in 1980 to heart. Somehow, the presidency had killed two of her older brothers, she argued.

During a conversation, he seemed lost in thought, she recalls.

“Where are you?” she asked him. “What are you thinking about?”

“I’m somewhere between happiness and sadness,” he replied, “and life and death.”

He ran in the primaries against President Jimmy Carter. When he lost, Ms Miller said, she was quietly relieved.

Melody Jean Miller was born on February 2, 1945 in Seattle. His father, Peter Miller, served in the Navy during World War II and later moved the family to the Washington, DC area, where he worked for the Veterans Administration. His mother, Dorothy Jean (Chittenden) Miller, was a nurse.

Shortly after Melody’s first meeting with President Kennedy, she left for Pennsylvania State University with the intention of working for his re-election campaign the following summer.

She was in her dorm on November 22, 1963, preparing for her history lesson, when she learned that the president had been shot. She put on a black dress and went to watch the news on TV.

“His loss was the greatest grief I have ever known,” she told The New York Times in 2013, “even more so than the loss of family members with whom I had a long see again”.

She studied education and political science and, after graduating in 1967, immediately went to work for Robert Kennedy as a press secretary, first in his Senate office and then on his presidential campaign.

Her first two marriages, to Paul McElligott and James Rogers, ended in divorce. In 1997, she married William P. Wilson, a former aide to John Kennedy who negotiated the terms of Kennedy’s historic first televised debate with Richard M. Nixon in 1960. He died in 2014.

Besides her brother, she is survived by her daughter-in-law, Eliza Wilson Ingle, and three step-granddaughters.

When Ms Miller retired from Ted Kennedy’s office in 2005, a reception was held in the caucus room of the Russell Senate Building, the same room where John Kennedy announced his candidacy for president in 1960 and where Robert Kennedy announced his eight years later. After Ted Kennedy’s death, the hall was renamed in honor of the brothers.

“This piece is very special to me,” Ms. Miller told Washington newspaper Roll Call, her eyes watering with tears. “I no longer see a special room to leave from.”

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nytimes

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