Every Legacy Needs An Architect
How sports agent Lee Fentress got the job of memorializing Ted Kennedy.
Fentress mostly left politics after Bobby was assassinated. Four years later, following a stint at a small DC law firm, he joined Craighill and two other partners and began breaking into the sports management business, then in its infancy. That venture became ProServ, one of the nation’s first sports agencies. In college, Fentress was a nationally ranked tennis player—even playing in the U.S. Open—and his relationships with greats Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith set up the company to expand into other sports. “He had a wonderful touch,” says Craighill.
When Kennedy buttonholed Fentress over lunch near Capitol Hill five years ago and asked him to head up an official oral-history project chronicling his decades in the Senate, Fentress was taken aback, he says. But in retrospect it made sense: He had served on the board of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, chairing it for eight of those years and launching, among other initiatives, the RFK Human Rights Award. The oral history is now well under way, being carried out by the esteemed Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which has ample experience working with the biggest of bigfoot politicos, such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush. “This is the first major oral-history project we’ve done that’s not a former president,” says the Miller Center’s James Sterling Young, who is directing the effort.
The scope of the oral history—including a target of well over 100 hours of interviews with the senator—is unprecedented. But as Kennedy’s health declined, the plan to memorialize him expanded. Kennedy “clearly needed a place to house all his Senate papers and his oral-history tapes,” Fentress says. Ed Schlossberg, who was also involved in the oral history, was pushing hard for a full institute. After a series of board meetings among top FOKs, the call was made, and the wheels began moving on the $50 million facility in Dorchester—also unprecedented for a U.S. senator.
Fentress characterizes his goal of breaking ground on the building this summer as “perhaps ambitious.” While the name Ted Kennedy does tend to open doors (the fundraising operation, spearheaded by former Hill, Holiday boss Jack Connors, is raking in money, and Fentress has been able to easily recruit heavy-hitter pols like former Senators John Warner and Jim Sasser), there’s still, by Fentress’s own admission, “a lot of work ahead.” The board of directors needs to be filled out. An executive director needs to be hired. The architect needs to be selected. The money needs to keep rolling in. Still, for all the work to be done, Fentress is quick to play down his role in the process. “I’m just helping to launch this thing,” he says. (It’s a sentiment echoed by fellow board member Paul Kirk, a former DNC chairman and Kennedy aide, who notes Fentress’s close attention to detail, efficiency, and congeniality.)
“He’s sort of under the public radar,” says Young. “He’s a very effective person, and very self-effacing in manner, but that helps him get where he got.” It may seem incongruous that an unrelentingly modest man would be tasked with building a president-size monument to a man who was never president, but sometimes the low-key approach is called for. However much he tries to duck the spotlight, though, when the Kennedy Institute opens on Columbia Point, Bostonians will come and check it out, and if it’s any good, they’ll have Lee Fentress to thank. And as far as personal legacies go, that’s not bad. It beats Joe Kleine, anyway.