Patrick Kennedy and the Jersey Girl

Two years ago, Patrick­ Kennedy, a troubled scion­ of America’s greatest­ political­ dynasty,­ walked into an Atlantic City ballroom­ and met a local schoolteacher who would become his wife. Now he’s reinventing­ himself—while living ­in his in-laws’ house in Absecon.­ An unconventional­ love story.

NINE MONTHS LATER, PATRICK KENNEDY walked out of Congress, marking the first time in 47 years there was no Kennedy serving in Washington. What nobody knew was that he didn’t go home to Rhode Island. Instead, he came for Christmas 2010 to the home of Amy Petitgout’s parents in Absecon, where Amy and her daughter were living. When the holiday was over, Patrick just never left.

Today, he and Amy are married, with their first child due in April. Patrick bought them a $1.1 million home on Brigantine Bay, but after a year of slow renovations, they realized it was actually a teardown that now won’t be ready for move-in for at least another year. So the newlyweds are still living with Amy’s parents, in a two-story colonial in a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood not far from a Wawa, an American Legion Post, and the now-closed Rifici’s, a family pizzeria where Amy once waitressed. They sleep in her brother’s old bedroom, and share a bathroom with Amy’s adorable daughter, Harper, now four.

Patrick is periodically picked up by a town car to give a paid lecture (for fees of up to $50,000) or an advocacy talk about mental health or neuroscience (for expenses or for free). But all the heads of state, former congressional colleagues, military leaders and CEOs he talks to would probably be astonished to learn how many of their calls he takes not from an office, but sitting in a wingback chair in his in-laws’ living room.

The national press has tried to turn Patrick and Amy into a Cinderella story. But anybody who knows them realizes it’s more like Jerry Maguire meets A Beautiful Mind in the swamps of Jersey. “I just never kind of felt like I had enough of a safe harbor emotionally to protect myself,” Patrick admits. “I didn’t know where I was going home to. And now I do.”

His discovery of that safe harbor doesn’t just matter to Kennedy watchers and Shore folk desperate for a new local celebrity. Many consider Patrick Kennedy, even out of elected office, to be one of the country’s most politically resonant advocates for the future of research and treatment for mental illness, addictions and brain injuries—age-old problems now being seen in a new way, through the prism of returning war vets with traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and the highest suicide rates in history. “We need to think of our returning American heroes as prisoners of war injuries,” he declares. “And frankly, there’s not a family in this country without a loved one who is a prisoner to their own mind—with a concussion, depression, an addiction. This is the unifying cause of our time.”

We’re sitting in Patrick and Amy’s bedroom in Absecon as he packs for a lecture in Belgium. The unadorned 10-by-10 room is especially untidy, the floor barely visible through luggage and strewn clothes, the dresser covered with cold medicine, a couple of bananas, and a well-thumbed, jacketless copy of Ted Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. Patrick’s mother-in-law, Leni Savell, says they endlessly beg him to clean up, but “when he does, he just grabs a bunch of stuff, takes it up to the attic, and drops it there.”

We hear the front door opening—it’s Amy coming home from school, after picking up Harper from the sitter. As we walk downstairs, Amy quickly realizes where we’ve been, and her face takes on a tortured look I know from my own wife—You let a guest upstairs in our messy bedroom? She catches herself, gives me a friendly hello, and takes Harper into the kitchen for a snack. She can throttle Patrick another time.

Later, I talk with the couple in the living room. Amy has long dark hair, big expressive eyes, and a lithe frame on which her pregnancy is just barely starting to show. She’s engaging without being melodramatic; I suspect she’s the teacher every sixth-grader at Northfield Community School is in love with. Her family has been living in the small towns around Atlantic City for generations. Some of them have been teachers (Amy attended the school where her own mother taught); one of her grandfathers was a commercial artist. Amy, who also paints, has a small collection of promotional pieces he did for Atlantic City, and sprinkled throughout the house are commemorative plates for Lucy the Elephant and other local favorites. A New England boy, Patrick is still trying to decipher all this Atlantic City arcana, learning a lot by reading to Harper from children’s books on local history.

Amy grew up surrounded by family, school, and the Shore as it’s known by its outdoorsy full-time residents. She swam for her school team, played field hockey, ran track and rowed crew, and taught swimming in the summer in Margate (her oldest brother, Paul, is the head crew coach at Drexel) while also waitressing everywhere from the high-roller Italian restaurant Girasole in Atlantic City to the Renault Winery in Egg Harbor City. In 1997 she enrolled at Penn State, expecting to major in anything but education. After deciding to be a teacher after all, she was offered a coveted job in the Northfield school district, near home.

In 2003, she married a guy she met at Penn State: Mark Petitgout, a high-school football star in southern Delaware who had enjoyed brief success as an invited walk-on at Penn State, where he played linebacker. (His older brother Luke played for Notre Dame and went on to be a starter for the New York Giants.) Amy and Mark settled into a house in Linwood. He started a tree-care business; the couple was married until early 2010.

“I had a baby, I went back to work, and then we just didn’t work out,” Amy says. “It’s very amicable now.” They agreed to joint custody of Harper; Amy continued teaching and, while she was spending more time with her parents, remained in the Linwood house until they could sell it.

And then one night she walked up to a Congressman from a famous family and asked for his autograph.