My Modest Encounter with RFK
By Larry Kelly
I was in the same frame of mind that many young men of my age shared: I was going to get drafted and die in Vietnam in a war that made no sense (unlike today’s wars – yeah). The draft lottery hadn’t come along yet, so we all thought the draft would get us after college. We were “Clean-For-Gene” and were coming off a high from Gene McCarthy’s humbling Lyndon Johnson in the New Hampshire primary with an end-the-war campaign. He was to be our salvation.
Robert Kennedy was on campus because of the Indiana Primary. It was important that he win either the Indiana or Oregon primary before he moved on to the decisive California primary. For that reason, he was making many campaign stops in Indiana. In April, Kennedy had made his famous Indianapolis Martin Luther King speech that for all purposes stopped a riot after the MLK assassination. The first of May, Kennedy was slated to speak at Purdue’s six thousand seat “Hall of Music” auditorium.
I found myself sitting in that very hot, crowded hall, wearing my one ragged sports coat. Times were a changing, but agriculture-engineering Purdue still required a student to wear a jacket if attending such events. Kennedy was a half-hour late, and a piss-poor Dixieland band with a repertoire of six songs was trying to entertain the restless crowd. The students were mostly hostile to Kennedy at the get-go, figuring him an opportunist for entering the race only four days after McCarthy made the courageous New Hampshire fight. By the time RFK arrived, applause was sparse and silence greeted his short prepared speech. Then the Q&A started, and the questions from the audience were downright rude. One I remember was “would you be running if your name was anything but Kennedy”. After a few of these, someone asked RFK about his New York Bedford Stuyvesant restoration project. He greeted the question with a long pause, and then said in a soft voice, “My God, I have a friend”. That turned the tide, and by the time he finished answering questions, he had won over the crowd, leaving to a standing ovation. I was left awestruck. To this day I have not seen someone take command of an audience like that other than, perhaps, Barack Obama. I believed he could and would end the Vietnam War.
I rushed out of the hall from one of the many exits only to find Kennedy exiting as well, getting in the back of a big convertible. Next thing I knew, I was wedged in between his rear bumper and the front bumper of a trailing car. RFK was standing and shaking hands with the crowd. He bent over and shook my hand, then rotated shaking other hands. I was trapped and couldn’t move so when he turned back, he shook my hand again. Not wanting to seem rude and do that a third time, I searched my person for some scrap of paper I could get him to sign, but no such luck. I do remember thinking as I moved my hand in and out of jacket pockets that security seemed nonexistent.
So anyway, now I had done it. I had actually met and touched someone who was likely to become President of the United States. Not an image in a newsreel, on TV, or in a magazine, but a real person; a great man. A month later he was gone, and I cried. It was personal.
Follow @Larry_Kelly on Twitter.