The Day I Met Robert F. Kennedy
By Joe Santorsa (Marnus3)
I grew up in a household deeply rooted in the tradition of Democratic politics. Discussions of the political landscape were as common at the breakfast table as cereal and milk. My father was a local businessman and my mother was a democratic committeewoman since the days of Roosevelt. She loved to tell the story of when working as a waitress at a local hotel, she had to serve a group of Republicans at a dinner. All night she listened to them belittle the suffering the depression had brought to average Americans. After an evening of hearing the vile contempt with which these people held her own people, she threw to the floor the dinners she was serving and stormed out, vowing to do whatever she could to prevent them from ever having power over her.
In March of 1964 the bitterness of the previous November still permeated our home like a dark fog. My parents had been mourning the death of President Kennedy as if they had lost a brother. But on one March day there was a ray of hope shining through the fog, because Robert Kennedy would be in town addressing the annual “Irish Sons of St. Patrick” dinner. Scranton was buzzing with excitement because for one day in that long, sad winter, something good was about to happen.
Bobby Kennedy was to be the overnight guest of a friend of my parents, a local county judge. The judge was a very generous man with a large Irish Catholic family, much like the Kennedys’. To my good fortune, he invited a small number of friends, including my parents and me, to his home to meet Bobby. It would have to be brief, but the opportunity to be in his company for just a few seconds was enough for me.
Now, you will be hard pressed to find a bigger Beatles fan than me, but I must admit that on this day, if given a choice between meeting the Beatles or Bobby Kennedy, the Beatles would have lost. Yes, even at the age of 14, I was hopelessly hooked on politics. As we drove over to the judge’s house, I went over in my mind what clever things to say to this hero of mine. It was fruitless. I decided to ad lib.
We were greeted at the door by the judge’s wife and brought into the living room. There he was, sitting like anyone else, but with the air of someone you knew was special. As he got up, we were introduced one by one. When he reached out to shake my hand, all my preparation evaporated as my mind went blank. I swear I almost fainted. I don’t even remember what I said or what he replied. It was an awe stricken moment that flashed before me and then was over. But I will always remember his eyes, clear and sincere and the softness of his handshake. I remember my father telling Bobby that he, too, had lost a brother in the war to a kamikaze attack. Bobby thanked him for his service and his family’s sacrifice, and my mother for her dedication to the party and his brother. And that quickly it was over. In that fraction of a lifetime, my life was touched by greatness. I was told that his speech that night was so moving, that the audience was in tears.
Some days later we were told by the judge’s wife that Bobby Kennedy, in his haste to leave, left his overcoat on the rack in their foyer. They offered to ship it to him but he told them he would pick it up on his next trip to Scranton. They kept it as a treasure.
Four years later, on June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the California presidential primary. By then I was in college, and the war in Vietnam was raging. I was dedicated to ending the war and Bobby Kennedy was my hope, my candidate. I stayed up with friends until after 3:00 AM to hear his victory speech and the famous words “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there”. Then came the chaos, and I never got to sleep that night, trying to make sense of what had just happened. I hoped against all odds that he would somehow survive, but it was not to be. Robert Kennedy died the next day. All that remained was a coat that would never be retrieved, the memory of a warm handshake on a cold March day, and the promise of peace that would not be fulfilled. I thought at that moment I would never dream again.