At times, it seemed Kennedy and his abundant energy would last for years. But last May, he suffered a seizure at his Cape Cod home and was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.
By August 2009, he was too ill to appear in public and missed the funeral for his sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and his being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
Kennedy is credited with several legislative efforts, most notably in the fields of civil rights, welfare and education. He was key to passing Head Start as part of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, the centerpiece of the War on Poverty. Kennedy fought for Title IX equal access for women and more student aid for GIs .
He proposed increases in minimum wage, championed the Family and Medical Leave Act, shepherded the No Child Left Behind Act, led the fight for passage of hate crimes legislation and sought protections against discrimination for gays and women.
He supported nuclear reduction treaties, enlisted labor unions and backed unrestricted access to abortion even in late term and for teens crossing state lines. He also stood proud despite some failures, including sponsorship of the Equal Rights Amendment, support for a doomed immigration reform bill and opposition to the Iraq war and several Supreme Court nominees, including current Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito.
He has spent the better part of his career trying to institute a nationalized health care program though he has been absent this year as Congress debates President Obama's plan, which was largely embraced in a Senate version with Kennedy's name on it.
Despite his inability to sway the daily debate, Kennedy's legacy will live on.
During the Aug. 15 Presidential Medal of Freedom award ceremony, Obama recalled a story the senator frequently told of an old man who throws starfish back into the sea even though each toss made only a small difference in the big picture.
Obama said for 50 years Ted Kennedy has been "making a difference for that soldier fighting for freedom, that refugee looking for a way home, that senior searching for dignity, that worker striving for opportunity, that student aspiring to college, that family reaching for the American Dream. The life of Senator Edward M. Kennedy has made a difference for us all."
SPEECHES: The Orator's Most Famous Speeches
TOPIC: Full Coverage on Ted Kennedy
INTERACTIVE: Timeline of Ted Kennedy's Life