Book will tell who Mary Jo Kopechne really was

First Posted: 7/18/2014

PLYMOUTH — A new book will tell the reader about Mary Jo Kopechne’s life, but it won’t discuss Chappaquiddick.

Georgetta Nelson Potoski, Kopechne’s first cousin, and her son, William Nelson, have written a book about Kopechne that details who she was, what she liked and even speculates on what she would be doing today at age 74.

Forty-five years ago today Kopechne died when the car she was riding in — driven by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy — went off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts. Kennedy escaped the wreckage, but Kopechne drowned in the car.

Much speculation and controversy surrounded the accident and many political observers say it cost Kennedy any chance to become president.

But the new book — titled “Our Mary Jo” — has not yet been published. The authors are seeking an agent to strike a deal with a publishing company.

Potoski, 72, of Plymouth, and Nelson, 42, of Lehighton, have worked on the book for years. It contains story after story about Kopechne, told by family members, friends and associates — people who knew her and who related positive stories about the young woman who died at age 29.

Nelson wrote a brief explanation on what the book is:

“This book introduces Mary Jo Kopechne to a world that has long remembered her, puzzled over her, and felt bereft for not ever really knowing her. It is told here by the family to whom she belonged, and by whom she was loved.

“I watched Gwen and Joe, Mary Jo’s parents, wait their entire lives for justice for their daughter. They died without receiving it. Perhaps it was because they were waiting for a justice based upon her death. We seek justice of a different kind, a justice based upon her life. And this kind of justice is not only possible; it is eagerly waiting to happen.”

Knowing Mary Jo

Potoski said the book gives Kopechne an identity other than the girl who died in Kennedy’s car. Chappaquiddick is not mentioned in the book.

“The book was written for family and friends so they would know who Mary Jo was,” Potoski said.

Kopechne was a teacher. She graduated from Caldwell College in New Jersey with a degree in business and education. She got involved with politics, rising to a key position with Bobby Kennedy.

In fact, Kopechne contributed to and typed RFK’s brief speech announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1968.

Proceeds from any sales of the book will go to a scholarship fund in Kopechne’s name and to her foundation. Potoski met with officials at Misericordia University on Wednesday.

Nelson said the book is about Kopechne and by not mentioning Chappaquiddick, readers will learn everything about her.

“Any mention of Kennedy and it becomes all-consuming,” Nelson said.

“The book is about Mary Jo’s life, not her death,” Potoski said.

Potoski said Mary Jo’s parents would be delighted with the book.

“As would Mary Jo,” she said.

What to expect

Potoski went through more than a thousand letters Gwen and Joe Kopechne received in the aftermath of their daughter’s death.

“I removed and placed together those letters who were from people who actually knew Gwen, Joe or Mary Jo. And it was from these letters that (my son) Bill first suggested we start a foundation for Mary Jo, because these letters truly speak to her character and who she had been, but also who she might have become if she had lived. It is through these letters that we project the good Mary Jo’s life could still have on people through this foundation,”she said.

Potoski said many of Mary Jo’s friends had reached high positions of service and had been able to effect great changes for other people, vastly improving the quality of life for many.

“Mary Jo had never had that opportunity,” Potoski said. “Her early death, had precluded her from ever reaching her full potential. She had not had an opportunity to live out her life and bring all the talent, intelligence and energy she possessed to completing her work of service to others.”

Kopechne was a member of the “Boiler Room Girls” — a nickname given to six young women who were key members of Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign who worked in a windowless, hot room in RFK’s Washington, D.C., campaign headquarters.

Potoski said as Kopechne’s first cousin and, having acted many times on her parents’ behalf and at their request, she relates her memories of Mary Jo and shares “some of the sweeter days that she lived.” Nelson said he and his mother were sometimes overwhelmed at the complexity of writing a book about a woman who is so well-known for her death, but not for her life.

“We strove to make this book the most complete and panoramic story of Mary Jo’s life possible because she deserved this; she deserves this book,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the book is called “Our Mary Jo” because of the familial reference to a loved one.

The book contains many personal stories, from the Kopechne’s life in New Jersey, to the 1960s and her experiences in Washington, D.C., to her funeral at St. Vincent’s Church in Plymouth and burial in the parish cemetery on Larksville Mountain, to information about Mary Jo’s parents, to continuing her legacy through a charitable foundation.

“It’s all positive,” Potoski said. “We want people to know who Mary Jo Kopechne was and what she meant to her family and friends.”

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