Ted Sorensen, the presidential speechwriter whose words forever will be etched in American history, died Sunday in New York City nine days after suffering a severe stroke.

Sorensen, a native of Lincoln and graduate of the University of Nebraska, was chief aide and adviser to President John F. Kennedy during his White House years.

Shortly after his death at Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan, President Obama issued a statement praising Sorensen for a lifetime devoted to "keep(ing) America true to our highest ideals."

"From his early days desegregating a Nebraska (swimming) pool to his central role electing and advising President Kennedy to his later years as an international lawyer and advocate, Ted lived an extraordinary life that made our country -- and our world -- more equal, more just and more secure.

"Generations of Americans entered public service aspiring to follow in his footsteps," Obama said.

Sorensen's wife, Gillian, said he was "full of optimism and engagement with life and politics" during their last conversation a couple of hours before what she described as a devastating stroke.

Sorensen was planning to participate in a number of events marking the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's election on Nov. 8, she said.

"A trip to Denmark was on his calendar," she said. "You really couldn't keep him down."

After his White House years, Sorensen joined a prominent New York City law firm and built an international law practice, advising governments, international organizations and heads of state, including President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

Sorensen, 82, suffered the stroke on Oct. 22 and had been hospitalized since that time. A first stroke nine years ago wiped out much of his eyesight, but he continued to live a full and active life.

For 47 years, since Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Sorensen had been keeper of the Kennedy legacy, standing guard like a human incarnation of the Eternal Flame that lights the president's grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

In recent years, Sorensen reached out with increasing fondness to his roots in Nebraska, returning to Lincoln often for speaking appearances and to receive honors from the educational institutions of his youth.

"Lincoln was in his blood," Gillian Sorensen said.

"His attachment to Lincoln was very special and his visits back home were very meaningful to him.

"Maybe it was coming full circle in a way."

Two days before the stroke, Sorensen gathered for lunch at Gabriel's restaurant near his residence with a trio of fellow well-known former Lincolnites who now live or work in New York City.

Sorensen joined Bob Kerrey and Dick Cavett in quoting from Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, said Gene Budig.

"We talked and laughed for nearly three hours," Budig said.

"Ted and Cavett thoroughly enjoyed revisiting their days in Lincoln.

"Ted referred to the lunch as Nebraska Day in New York City and suggested that we meet monthly. Ted was wet-eyed when he left."

Born in Lincoln on May 8, 1928, Sorensen was a graduate of Lincoln High School, the University of Nebraska and its College of Law.

Sorensen chronicled the history he witnessed and lived in a number of books, including a 2008 memoir entitled "Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History."

In 1965, still recovering from the grief of the assassination, he wrote "Kennedy," a first-hand account of the Kennedy years.

Sorensen's position at the right hand of power placed him in the room at historic moments, none more dramatic than the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that shoved the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war.

It was Sorensen who penned the letter to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that ultimately defused the crisis.

"How a kid from Nebraska ended up writing the letter sent from Kennedy to Khrushchev is my proudest moment," Sorensen recalled in a 2005 interview in his 14th floor apartment overlooking Central Park.

The letter was delicately worded to respond to only the more reasonable of two letters from Khrushchev while ignoring a more unyielding and bellicose communication from the Soviet leader.

"I employed the debate technique I learned at Lincoln High School," Sorensen said. "I embraced his case."

While the message in that letter may have been the most important words he ever wrote, Sorensen crafted presidential speeches that contained words forever carved in historic granite.

Perhaps the most familiar passage: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Are those Sorensen's words?

"Ask not," he would playfully reply.

Kennedy, he said, was "the author of all his words."

Although Sorensen subsequently embarked on an extraordinary 36-year legal career of his own, he will always be identified with John F. Kennedy -- and glad of it.

"My 11 years with JFK were unquestionably the cornerstone of my professional life," he wrote in the concluding chapter of "Counselor."

"Drawing on the memories and files of my years with John Kennedy has helped bring a kind of closure after all this time.

"I have completed my service to him."

Sorensen grew up in Lincoln in a two-story stucco house at 2451 Park Ave.

His father, C.A. Sorensen, was Nebraska's attorney general from 1929 to 1933.

"I could not have received a better education than I received from Sheridan Elementary School, Irving Junior High School and Lincoln High," he wrote in his memoir.

Sorensen graduated from LHS in 1945 and went on to the University of Nebraska.

He earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 and finished at the top of his graduating law class in 1951.

"It was a wholesome place to grow up," Sorensen recalled in the 2005 interview.

"I owe Lincoln everything."

Sorensen has endowed student scholarships or fellowships on both the UNL and College of Law campuses.

Matt Schaefer, a 2010 Law College graduate who held the Ted Sorensen Fellowship during his senior year, said Sorensen's journey from his Nebraska roots to the nation's halls of power was impressive in its own right.

"But what is truly inspiring," Schaefer said, "is the work that he did when he got there -- tirelessly advocating for peace, liberty and justice for all."

Less than two years after finishing law school, Sorensen was hired as a young research assistant and speechwriter on the staff of a newly elected Massachusetts senator. He served Kennedy for 11 years.

Sorensen, who grew into the role of trusted political aide and policy adviser, traveled the country with Kennedy in the late 1950s as the senator set the stage for his 1960 presidential campaign.

Shortly after his election, Kennedy, 43, the youngest person ever elected to the White House, named Sorensen, 32, as special counsel to the president.

Discussing his role during the 13-day Cuban missile crisis in an interview five years ago, Sorensen defined his White House assignment.

"My role was what Kennedy always wanted me to do: Ask hard questions. Be a skeptic. Be a critic."

Sorensen often has been credited with heightening Kennedy's awareness of the need for civil rights legislation.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, it was the young Unitarian aide from Nebraska who helped Kennedy craft a landmark speech effectively responding to concerns about the election of a Catholic president.

Sorensen's death came in the season of signal moments in his life.

It was Oct. 27, 1962, when he penned the letter to Khrushchev.

Kennedy was elected president 50 years ago next week.

Kerrey said most Nebraskans know Sorensen's role with Kennedy, but may not fully realize "what an extraordinary impact the Sorensen family had on Nebraska and that Nebraska had on the Sorensen family."

Sorensen is "a great testimony to the University of Nebraska and its law school," Kerrey said.

And it was "my good fortune" to know him, he said.

Budig said Sorensen "always made me proud, realizing the greatness that my home state of Nebraska had given to the world of public service."

"He was arguably one of the political world's finest minds," Budig said. "His words will live for generations, perhaps as no other presidential scholar."

John Cavanaugh, the former Omaha congressman who became Sorensen's closest contact in Nebraska, said: "It's hard to imagine a world without Ted Sorensen.

"He loved Nebraska," Cavanaugh said. "He loved remembering his youth here and his family.

"I visited the house in Lincoln when he went through it two years ago. He remembered reading at the fireplace and walking to school."

Sorensen was married to Gillian Martin Sorensen, a former New York City commissioner and former undersecretary general of the United Nations who now is senior adviser and national advocate for the United Nations Foundation.

Sorensen is survived by four children.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.