“My relationship with Senator Ted Kennedy began with a cigar,” Aaron Freund said as he slid into the seat across from me at a corner booth in Giordano's.

He had brought with him a briefcase branded with the seal of the President of the United States of America. From it he showed me folders filled with photographs of him alongside famous politicians, letters from the likes of Edward Kennedy and books signed by Bill Clinton.

Although he has powerful connections, Freund is no politician.

A Chicago native who is short in stature with graying hair, he is a familiar face to Northwestern students that frequent Sargent Dining Hall. They often find him swiping Wildcards, dismissing them with a sharp “Bye” and waving them away.

Before ending up at Northwestern, Freund’s career took him from Chicago to Boston to Cape Cod and back as a friend and unofficial assistant to Ted Kennedy as he learned lessons of loyalty and allegiance. The cigar in question was his way in.

Freund first met Kennedy when he was about 23 years old. After graduating from Northeastern Illinois University with a political science degree, Freund worked as a precinct captain for the Democratic Party in Chicago, a job he said consisted of knocking on doors and often getting yelled at by the house’s occupants.

Freund was something of a political buff; he had been collecting campaign paraphernalia since he was a child and said his family would often discuss politics at the dinner table. When he found out that senator Ted Kennedy was coming to Chicago for a campaign event, Freund was determined to meet him.

“I went to Alfred Dunhill of London and got the best box of cigars I could…At the time, they were $15 apiece. That’s big money. Today, maybe $35,” he recalled.

Freund went to the campaign event and handed Kennedy the box of expensive cigars, along with a piece of paper upon which was written his address and phone number.

Freund’s ploy worked; Kennedy remembered him.

“He wrote me back and said ‘Stop in and see me sometime.’ So… I did,” Freund said nonchalantly.

That interaction got the ball rolling. On top of doing auditing jobs for the City of Chicago, he began to help out Kennedy where he could be useful. At one point, Freund sat on a host committee, raising money for Kennedy’s campaigns. Freund contributed almost $10,000 over his lifetime, he said.

Freund also got an old friend of his, artist Mitch Kuhn, to design and produce campaign buttons for Ted Kennedy’s nephew, Joseph P. Kennedy II.

In one handwritten letter, Joseph Kennedy wrote to Freund “Just a note of thanks for all the help you’ve been over the years. The buttons you made for my potential run for governor are terrific – and encouraging.”

Though the Kennedys never officially employed Freund, he became something of a family friend and assistant, getting invites to clambakes and sailing outings at their house in Nantucket. As time went on, he attended awards dinners and the like, racking up a long list of famous people whose hands he’d shaken: Richard M. Daley, Joseph Kennedy, Joe Biden, Dave Powers and Bill Clinton, among others. When Freund met Jackie Kennedy, he said she thanked him for his loyalty to the family.

Loyalty is everything to a family like this, Freund said.

Freund’s father, an auto mechanic, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1984. When Freund told Ted Kennedy, he bumped his father to the top of a months-long Boston hospital waitlist. He flew the family to Boston and met them on the tarmac with a limousine which took them to the hospital. He even rented a fully-furnished apartment for the family to stay in for as long as they needed, and, Freund said, called every day to check in. Freund attributes all of this to his loyalty.

“He wrote a letter to my father, which I have framed at home,” Freund told me. “He said ‘your son has been a wonderful, loyal, and generous friend to me.’”

Freund has a deep admiration of and devotion to Ted Kennedy and his achievements. He passionately listed off the initiatives that Kennedy worked for, from pushing through Title IV to raising the minimum wage. Freund got choked up as he spoke of Kennedy’s fight for universal healthcare.

“I saw countless people testifying before his committee,” Freund said. “Broke, houses gone, babies gone, because they couldn't afford to pay medical bills. They had to choose between the light bulb or their child being sick and dying.”

Freund’s commitment to healthcare is personal; he has faced a host of health challenges since birth, including digestive problems and the need for his fingers to be surgically separated. Freund spent so long in the hospital as a baby, he said, that his sister didn’t believe she really had a new little brother. These health issues meant he didn’t have an easy time growing up.

“My mother and father, as I got older, sat me down and told me my problem,” he said. “They said ‘Aaron, here’s what you’re going to have to face. Most of the kids are gonna make fun of you. The way you look, the way you are. You may come home crying. You’ll get used to it.’”

Freund said that when he was in school, his teacher sat him in the corner, away from other students, and treated him like he was stupid.

Once, a staff member made fun of Freund’s disability, calling him goofy and asking why he was around. Kennedy pulled him aside.

“I could hear the senator screaming, ‘Why don’t you get the hell out of here, because he’s not going anywhere, but you are!” Freund said. “‘Either you apologize or don’t bother coming back,’ and that ended that.”

Freund’s mother had anticipated his struggles, but she wouldn’t let him allow his challenges to get the best of him.

“I’m not raising a baby,” she would tell him. “You go out there and screw them all. You get tough. You get aggressive. Hell be damned. Do what you have to do and get it done.”

“Well,” he said. “I did.”

Freund never considered going into politics himself, even though – or perhaps because – he was around it so much. He didn’t want the spotlight for himself or to give up his personal life, he said.

Freund was living in Chicago with his dog when he got a call from the company that ran Northwestern’s dining halls. He wasn’t actively searching for a job, but they asked him to come in for an interview. To this day, Freund doesn’t know how the company got his information, but he secured the job and has worked here ever since.

Although working in Sargent dining hall is not as glamorous as frolicking around with the Kennedys, Freund is content with the impact he’s had and the contributions he’s made.

“I don’t need to be in books, to be written about. I'm blessed. I've lived history, and not many people can say that.”

Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern