50 years later, local recalls Robert Kennedy visit
1968 was a tumultuous time in America.
Lyndon B. Johnson was president. The Vietnam War was raging. And it was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
In March 1968, Kennedy announced his intention to run for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States with a planned visit to Portland State University.
PSU would prove to be one of his last campaign stops. Little more than two months later, on June 5, Kennedy was gunned down in a Los Angeles hotel on the night he won the California Democratic primary.
Oregon City's Tom Geil was a photographer for the Portland State University newspaper, The Vanguard, when Kennedy visited the campus on March 26, 1968.
Not necessarily supportive of any presidential candidate at the time, Geil said the only thing he knew for certain was he was against President Johnson for his role in escalating the Vietnam War.
Geil wasn't a fan of Kennedy's brother, John F. Kennedy, in part because, at his parochial school, he was forced to go home and tell his parents they had to vote for John Kennedy because he was Catholic.
"But Bobby Kennedy was just a completely different soul," recalled Geil, a 1967 Jesuit High School graduate. "I mean, when he spoke to you, you felt like he really believed and meant what he said, and the way he phrased things was so different from any politician."
During a recent interview at his downtown Oregon City business, Odditorium/Ghoul Gallery, the 69-year-old recalled that he and other Vanguard photographers fanned out that day to cover Kennedy. Geil would return with iconic images that captured the speech and its aftermath.
Geil recalled that Kennedy's words that day were well-chosen and his delivery made it seem like he was talking right to you. While it was hard to put his finger on it, Geil said Kennedy had an aura about him.
"Bobby Kennedy had this smile, and he didn't have long hair, but in some of the photographs, you know some people [had posters saying] 'cut your hair,'" recalled Geil, who went on to study journalism at PSU before getting a degree in psychology. "I'm not sure what people expected. I think it was a way to get under his skin."
Geil said Kennedy delivered a good speech, perhaps similar to what he had given before "but he had a good audience and he didn't want to lose it.
In May 1968, Kennedy's campaign pushed into Oregon for one last six-day swing as the senator from New York sought to win the state primary and ultimately the Democratic ticket to become the next U.S. president.
Kennedy would pull out all the stops. He traveled around Portland and Beaverton, addressing such groups as the City Club of Portland. He followed it up with a six-car train that would take his entourage to Oregon City, Salem, Albany, Harrisburg, Junction City and Eugene, as chronicled in Jules Witcover's "85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy."
Kennedy visited Beaverton's Sunset High School on May 17 for a Model Democratic Convention, addressing 1,300 students. He would end up taking a dip in 54-degree Oregon Coast waters along with his dog, Freckles. Later, he unexpectedly bumped into his challenger, Eugene McCarthy, at what was then known as the Portland Zoo.
Geil said that it wasn't Kennedy's prose that made him effective, but his wording.
"He knew, I think, that a lot of students were more attuned to McCarthy because he was so anti-war, so anti-Nixon," said Geil, who later worked as a front-page editor for the Beaverton Valley Times and what was then the Southwest Times in the late 1960s. "Kennedy was not. He wanted the war to end — but I don't think he was as strong about it as McCarthy at the time."
Geil said Kennedy's words and the way he carried himself that day made him seem "like he was one of us."
To get the best angle, Geil jumped around the gymnasium, photographing the senator and crowd at every angle with a camera whose make and model is lost in the details after a half-century since he shot the photos.
"I liked him because of who he was and not because he was a Kennedy," Geil continued. "Everything he said, you can't memorize some of those things. It comes from the heart and the mind when you speak."
When it was over, Geil got a chance to shake the senator's hand and exchange a word or two.
"I think I told him, 'great speech.' He just smiled and said 'thanks.'"
Geil recalled that security was extremely lax and students were allowed to approach Kennedy outside the PSU gymnasium.
Students swarmed him. Some tousled his hair.
"Somebody took his cufflinks," Geil recalled, noting that on some of his photos, you can see Kennedy's long-sleeved shirt missing the jewelry. "Can you imagine someone getting close enough today to take somebody's cufflinks?"
Geil would later shoot photos during the Portland State riots of 1970 and an appearance by Nixon during an Oregon campaign stop.
Geil was in the Vanguard offices when he heard the news of Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles. He had thought that Kennedy would edge out McCarthy and win the Democratic nomination.
"It was like your whole heart, your breath, is taken away," said Geil, becoming emotional. "I wasn't in California but he was just here. I just took these pictures of him and [assassin] Sirhan Sirhan cut him [down]."
He added: "Oh my God. That was our dream. Our wishes. And now where do we go from here? And to me, everything's been downhill ever since. I wonder what kind of world it would have been if first John Kennedy had been around, but more so what would the world have been if Bob Kennedy had been president."
Geil said it will be Kennedy's quote, taken from a similar quote from a play by George Bernard Shaw, which he'll always remember: "Some men see things as they are and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."
"And that's how I admire and remember him," Geil said. "I dream of a world with Bobby Kennedy in it, showing kindness, along with strength of character and higher morality and conscience for our country."