Fresno State graduate Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff was only 4 when she first traveled with her family to St. Coletta in Jefferson, Wis. The primary reason for the trip was to see her aunt, Sister Paulus Koehler, who was a Franciscan nun at the convent.
It was during subsequent visits that Koehler-Pentacoff got to know the woman her aunt would eventually take care of for more than 30 years, Rosemary Kennedy. The oldest daughter of Joseph and Rose Kennedy had been sent to the convent after a lobotomy failed to make a difference in Rosemary’s battle with mental illness. Rosemary’s violent temper tantrums led her father to approve the experimental brain surgery in November 1941.
Koehler-Pentacoff has chronicled the meetings that brought two families together in “The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women” (Bancroft Press, $27.50). The book includes 100 photos from her private collection.
“There are the Kennedys, rich and famous. And there’s us,” Koehler-Pentacoff says. “I’ve always admired the Kennedys very much. But Rosie to us wasn’t really a Kennedy, she was part of our family.”
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After growing up in Wisconsin, Koehler-Pentacoff moved to Fresno because Fresno State had a child drama center. She also hated the cold winters of her home state. Koehler-Pentacoff lived in the Fresno area from 1975 to 1983. After graduating from Fresno State with degrees in theater and education, she taught school at O’Neals, worked in local libraries and directed plays through Fresno Community Theatre.
“I met my husband, who was an engineer for PG&E, here. We loved Fresno, but when Robert got transferred, we moved to the Bay Area,” Koehler-Pentacoff says.
Koehler-Pentacoff has had a passion for writing since she was a youngster. The advice she got at that time from her guidance counselor was that the best opportunity to be a writer meant becoming a reporter. She found a different outlet and since 1989 has authored 10 books plus had articles published by the San Francisco Examiner, Parents Magazine, Parenting and Writer’s Digest.” “The Missing Kennedy” is her first adult memoir.
“I always loved writing and did it privately,” Koehler-Pentacoff says. “I never did anything about it until we had our son in 1984. I discovered I wanted to stay home with him.”
She loved being a mom but decided there was a need for something more to stimulate her brain cells. That’s when she started writing. She made a deal with her son, Topher, that if would give her 15 minutes to type a page, then they could play together.
Her son is now grown and living in Boston, so Koehler-Pentacoff no longer has to make deals to get writing time.
Rosemary Kennedy’s story had been floating around in the author’s head for decades, but she never felt comfortable writing it. What pushed Koehler-Pentacoff to pen the book was a dream in which a young, blond man told her she was going to write “The Missing Kennedy.” Despite her concerns about upsetting the family, the man in the dream convinced her to tell the story.
Although Koehler-Pentacoff knew Rosemary through her time under her aunt’s care, there was still research to be done. During that work, she found a photo in a book of the blond man in her dreams. It was David Kennedy, the fourth child of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, who had a close connection with Rosemary.
The book looks at how members of the Kennedy family had been instructed not to visit Rosemary out of concern it would be too upsetting. That changed when Ethel Kennedy finally reconnected Rosemary with family and friends. She became a central figure in the Kennedy world and is considered the inspiration behind Special Olympics and the Best Buddies program.
Not only is the book a look into the lives of the family that is the closest thing to royalty in America, but it also shines a light on mental illness, especially fitting since the first of October is mental illness awareness week. One in four adults each year – approximately 61.5 million Americans – experiences mental illness. People with untreated mental illness make up one-third of our homeless population, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Koehler-Pentacoff explains why she uses the word “missing” in the title rather than “forgotten,” “forsaken,” “hidden” or “least famous” in describing Rosemary Kennedy.
“The specificness of ‘missing’ came along in her teenage years,” Koehler-Pentacoff says. “She began reacting to hormones and teenage years. A lot of mental illness starts showing up in teenage years.
“After her lobotomy, it was like she evaporated.”
Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff will hold a book signing for “The Missing Kennedy: Rosemary Kennedy and the Secret Bonds of Four Women” (Bancroft Press, $27.50) at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, Woodward Park Library, 944 E. Perrin Ave. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.