"We've lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism, and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever," said a statement released by the Kennedy family early Wednesday. "We thank everyone who gave him care and support over this last year, and everyone who stood with him for so many years in his tireless march for progress toward justice, fairness and opportunity for all."
Edward "Ted" Moore Kennedy, the youngest of nine children of former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald, was elected to public office in 1962 to be a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts after his brother, John F. Kennedy, won the presidency and vacated the seat.
Kennedy went on to be re-elected to seven full terms and became the third-longest-serving senator in history, casting more than 15,000 votes - the fourth most in history.
Watch an ad from Kennedy's first Senate campaign:
For more than four decades, "Teddy" Kennedy was the last surviving brother of the famed Kennedy family. The eldest, Joseph Kennedy, died in a World War II plane crash, President John Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 during his presidential run. Robert Kennedy also served in the Senate.
"An important chapter in our history has come to an end. Our country has lost a great leader, who picked up the torch of his fallen brothers and became the greatest," President Obama said in a written statement about Kennedy's death.
Kennedy will lie in repose Thursday and Friday at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston before his funeral at a city church, the senator's office said. He will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery near his slain brothers, said Kennedy spokesman Keith Maley, according to the AP.
One of Kennedy's most notable statements occurred while eulogizing his brother Robert: "My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. He should be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it."
An icon of the Democratic Party, the senior senator from Massachusetts spent the majority of his time in the Senate advocating for liberal policies and candidates, becoming one of only a handful of senators who supported legalizing same-sex marriage.
But Kennedy was also known for being a consummate dealmaker. He ruffled feathers within his own party when he joined with President George W. Bush in 2001 to support the No Child Left Behind Act, a bill many Democrats opposed for its emphasis on school testing.
Kennedy chaired the Senate's Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and also served on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. He was a strong opponent of the Iraq war, later launching legislation in 2007 opposing President Bush's troop surge.
Through most of Kennedy's career, he was a pro-choice advocate, an issue that put him at odds with his Catholic faith. Before Roe v. Wade in 1973, Kennedy was reported to have held a pro-life position. After the seminal Supreme Court decision, however, Kennedy changed positions, a fact that caused a continuous dispute between him and the Catholic Church.
Kennedy settled on a career in politics early in life, helped along - like his brothers -- by his father's influence and money.
In 1955, Kennedy scored Harvard's lone touchdown in a 21-7 defeat to arch rival, Yale. A month earlier, Green Bay Packers Head Coach Lisle Blackbourn took notice of the young Kennedy, writing to him that he was highly recommended by other coaches in the area. Kennedy declined the offer, saying that he planned to attend law school and enter another contact sport: politics.
In 1969, Kennedy's political career almost ended when a car he was driving veered off the road and plunged into the channel between Chappaquiddick Island and Martha's Vineyard. While Kennedy managed to escape, his passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, a campaign worker, drowned. Kennedy left the scene of the accident and did not call the police until the next day. He received a suspended sentence of two months in jail after he pled guilty to leaving the scene of an accident. He was re-elected to the Senate the following year, but the incident significantly damaged his chances of winning his party's presidential nomination.
In 1980, Kennedy's one try for the White House ended in failure, when he took on a sitting president of his own party, Jimmy Carter.
In 2004, he campaigned for fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in his failed run for the presidency.
Early in the 2008 Democratic primary, Kennedy backed Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's bid for the Democratic nomination over N.Y. Sen. Hillary Clinton - a monumental moment in the race that many political observers viewed as Kennedy passing the torch from the Democratic Party's past to a new generation.
Watch Kennedy's speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention, introduced by his niece, Caroline Kennedy:
In May 2008, Kennedy was diagnosed with a malignant glioma, a condition that affects about 9,000 Americans each year, making it the most common type of brain cancer among adults.
During his decades-long career, he fought for a government-sponsored universal health care plan. During the 2009 health care reform debate on Capitol Hill, Kennedy organized twice-weekly meetings between organizations and individuals with major stakes in the health care reform process in order to facilitate a reform bill. During that same timeframe, he was rarely seen in public due to his illness.
In July 2009, as Congress debated major health care reform legislation, Kennedy wrote an intensely personal article for Newsweek magazine in which he described his and his family's experiences with major illnesses and called the fight for universal health care "the cause of my life.
He described the care he received in 1964 after his plane crashed on the way to the Massachusetts Democratic Convention, an accident that killed the pilot and Kennedy's assistant, Ed Moss. He also wrote of his gratitude about never having to worry about how he would pay for his health care during his final illness, arguing that everyone should share in this security. "I am resolved to see to it this year that we create a system to ensure that someday, when there is a cure for the disease I now have, no American who needs it will be denied it."
Kennedy is survived by his son, U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, and has two other children from his marriage to Joan Bennett Kennedy, which ended in divorce. He took on the role of surrogate father to his slain brothers' 13 children. He married Victoria Reggie in 1992.
---- By the Online NewsHour with wire services