Robert F. Kennedy in Portland, Beaverton and beyond - 50 years later
Editor's Note: Fifty years ago this week (starting on May 22), Robert F. Kennedy's campaign pushed into Oregon for one last six-day rally as the senator from New York sought to win the state primary and ultimately the Democratic ticket to become the next U.S. president.
He would pull out all the stops, traveling around Portland and Beaverton addressing such groups as the City Club of Portland, following it up by a six-car train that would take Kennedy and his entourage to Eugene, stopping at Oregon City, Salem, Albany Harrisburg and Junction City along the way, as chronicled in Jules Witcover's "85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy."
Only the week before, he visited Sunset High School on May 17 for a Model Democratic Convention, addressing 1,300 students. His campaign staff, including brother Ted Kennedy and Pierre Salinger (former JFK spokesman), would stump for their candidate in Beaverton before it was over.
Before leaving Oregon, RFK would end up taking a dip in 54-degree Oregon Coast waters along with his dog Freckles and unexpectedly bumped into his challenger, Eugene McCarthy, at what was then known as the Portland Zoo, Witcover reported.
Kennedy started his campaign late and had made an earlier push into the state, appearing at Portland State University for a speech where he rebuked America's involvement in Vietnam.
He would lose the Oregon primary to Eugene McCarthy before it was over. And a short time later, he would end up in California where his life would tragically end in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen after winning that state's primary.
What follows are the recollections of three area residents who recall Kennedy's time in Oregon in an official campaign that lasted less than three months.
Margaret Doherty: Skipping school to 'save the world'
To say the least, March 1968 was a tumultuous time and place.
Just ask Rep. Margaret Doherty, a Tigard Democrat representing Oregon House District 35 who was a 17-year-old senior in high school at the time.
Lyndon Johnson was president.
The Vietnam War was raging.
And Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated within a week.
It was also the same month that Robert F. Kennedy would announce his intention to run in hopes of securing the Democratic nomination for president of the United States with a planned visit to Portland State University set for March 26.
Doherty, who would soon graduate from Wilson High School, said she decided to take the bus from her Hillsdale-area home downtown to PSU to see the senator from New York. (It wouldn't be her first sojourn to visit a Kennedy, Doherty recalled, saying she remembers RFK's brother John visiting the Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Hillsdale during a campaign stop in Portland in 1960.)
"Actually I got on the bus early, it was like 7 o'clock in the morning, he spoke mid-morning, at 10 o'clock or something, and so I just went down there and got down there really early and there were a lot of people there," she recalled, saying she immediately scrambled for the top of the bleachers to get a good view after entering the PSU gymnasium.
While she remembers being impressed with the fact Kennedy brought two of his sisters there to support him, Doherty was there for a more specific reason — to support the man she thought would be the next president of the United States.
"He was everything you'd want in a president," said Doherty, noting she was very much against the war in Vietnam and Kennedy's message lined up with her personal views. "I think what stood out was the message he had: that we shouldn't be in Vietnam."
(Doherty once raised her hand to tell a history class teacher that she believed the Vietnam War was "immoral and illegal." She was kicked out of class.)
Although McCarthy would end up winning the Democratic nomination in Oregon — and Doherty would go on to support him after Kennedy was assassinated — she believed strongly in Kennedy's dream.
Doherty said she doesn't recall the whole gist of the speech, joking that it wasn't simply going to be a fundraising speech "because they weren't going to get anything out of (college students)."
She said she believes both Kennedy and King would have made a difference if they had lived.
"I think especially with Martin Luther King, we'd have a different United States," she said, adding that the deaths of both made her want to become even more involved with politics.
After graduating from Wilson, Doherty would attend Portland State, majoring in speech and theater and minoring in political science, and would end up joining Portland demonstrations and protests in May 1970, after the Kent State University shootings at a time where the goal was to shut down the university in protest.
"You'd go to school, you'd shut the place down but then you had to go to work," she recalled.
Doherty thinks she was working or at home when she heard the news Kennedy had been assassinated, a week after graduating from high school.
"And I think, as I recall, my reaction was 'not again,'" said Doherty. "And it was almost like the idols of the young people were being assassinated, people who were verifying the high school and college kids."
She remembers thinking, "This can't be right. People don't do this."
But the assassinations of both men changed her world.
"It almost made me want to get active even more because it was one of these things where some of my heroes or my idols weren't around … when more of the college protests happened, more of the idea we're going to shut it down and take things to the street."
Having grown up in the 1960s, Doherty said she was extremely idealistic.
"We were going to save the world," she recalled of her generation. "Didn't you want to save the world when you were 17?"
RFK's Portland State University speech, a sampling:
"I stand with those who want a new effort to end the war in Vietnam and begin the long journey toward peace. The time has long since passed to recognize that a military victory is not within sight and it is not around the corner, that it in fact is almost certainly beyond our grasp and that the effort to win such a victory will only result in the further slaughter of thousands upon of thousands of innocent and helpless people, a slaughter that which will forever rest on the American national conscience, on your conscience and on mine."
-- March 26, 1968, Portland State University Oregon Public Speakers Collection
Tom Geil: Of toustled hair and missing cufflinks -- photographing the PSU speech
Oregon City's Tom Geil was a photographer for the Portland State University newspaper, The Vanguard, when Robert F. 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 Lyndon B. 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 Geil 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 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 gave 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.
"But again (it wasn't his) prose but his sense of 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 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 of 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 cuff links." 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 cuff links?"
Geil would later shoot photos during the Portland State riots of 1970 and an appearance by Richard M. Nixon during an Oregon campaign stop. He said his personal opinion was that Kennedy would edge out McCarthy and win the Democratic nomination.
Kennedy would go one to win the Democratic nomination in California. Geil was in the Vanguard offices when he heard the news of Kennedy's assassination.
"So we went about our lives after he left (PSU) and so that morning I tell you, I mean it was like your whole heart, your breath, is taken away," said Geil, becoming emotional. "I mean, 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 further: "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."
Fred Wahlstrom: On the campaign trail -- New York and beyond
Fred Wahlstrom was fresh out of college in 1967 when his father, a New York advertising executive, was approached by Ted Sorensen, an adviser to John F. Kennedy and later to Robert F. Kennedy, asking for help with a public relations campaign for the Scenic Hudson Preservation Conference, a group of people who got together to oppose Consolidated Edison's efforts to construct a power plant on Storm King Mountain in New York. The elder Wahlstrom suggested his son.
After a victory was scored there, Sorensen told Wahlstrom they needed a press aide in Sen. Kennedy's New York office even before Kennedy announced his plans to run in 1968 and wanted to know if Wahlstrom was interested.
He was and soon was at work, handling the New York press and later traveling with RFK.
"I mean I was green," said Wahlstrom, a Beaverton resident for the last 15 years. "I didn't know what I was doing but it was a great opportunity. I learned so much. It was just an incredible experience."
Wahlstrom traveled with Kennedy to the Mississippi Delta, Bedford–Stuyvesant in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, Appalachia and various migrant labor camps in California. And, along with other staffers, endured campaign days that could last up to 20 hours.
One recollection involves Kennedy traveling to Mississippi where he engaged a young, poverty-stricken child, listlessly picking at dried rice and beans that were spilt all over a dirt floor.
"And Sen. Kennedy reached out to the boy and tried to touch his hair and stroke his face," recalled Wahlstrom. "He couldn't get a response. So he finally walked out the back door and he was actually crying."
Wahlstrom said he remembers Kennedy's week in Oregon prior to the Oregon primary, specifically remembering he brought his mutt Freckles with him. The entourage would travel through the state by train.
"It was a whirlwind tour," recalled Wahlstrom, who now works as a weekend television news assignment editor for a Portland station. "He had an unbounded amount of energy. He would go on a couple hours sleep a night and he would just tire out the staff."
Now in his early 70s, Wahlstrom said he believes Kennedy was less of a politician than either of his two brothers.
"There was a human side to him I don't think a lot of people saw," he said. "He really wanted to make changes and one of the reasons he joined the race he felt it was an opportunity to make some headway."
He said he felt Kennedy went through some real soul-searching times after his brother's death and would have ultimately gotten the Democratic nomination for president. His death, observed Wahlstrom, "was like somebody cut your heart out.
"And I really think he would have beaten Nixon," Wahlstrom continued. "I think what would have happened is, he would have gotten us out of Vietnam earlier and probably save thousands of lives."
At one point during the national campaign, Wahlstrom recalled that he and other aides appeared on the cover of a national magazine as they tried to hang onto the senator as he shook hands with people from atop of a car.
"We were afraid he was going to fall, get pulled into the crowd," he said. "Back in those days he didn't have Secret Service protection as you probably know."
Meanwhile, Wahlstrom remembers Kennedy being a real family man. One of jobs for the entourage was keeping track of the senator's large brood of children.
"We were always going, getting one of the kids or something," Wahlstrom said. "And we'd have to keep an eye on them."
Wahlstrom said when Kennedy was campaigning in New York, he'd often fly home for dinner at the Kennedy compound known as Hickory Hill in McLean, Va., aboard a Pan American shuttle and come back that same night.
Thinking he would win the Oregon Democratic primary, Wahlstrom said Kennedy was disappointed with his defeat here.
"It's kind of funny. To show Sen. Kennedy's humor after he lost the primary to (Eugene) McCarthy, he blamed (his dog) Freckles," said Wahlstrom, noting that he considered the mutt one of his more persuasive campaigners.
While working on the Kennedy campaign was the greatest experience of his life, it was also the most tragic experience in his life.
Wahlstrom would later travel with the Kennedy campaign to California in June and was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Kennedy was assassinated.
In the half century that has passed since that fateful night, Wahlstrom has never spoken publicly about the details of that night and declines to do so to this day.
"I was about six feet behind him," is all Wahlstrom will offer. "There's been so much written about it. It's well documented and there's nothing more that I could add that hasn't already been said and it's just a personal time I just don't like to think about and remember. I still — every once in a while — have nightmares about it."
Later, Wahlstrom would ride on the funeral train that brought Kennedy's body from New York to Washington, D.C.
"That was really a sight where all these people came out on the railroad tracks with flags waving and just trying to pay tribute to Sen. Kennedy."
Wahlstrom also would be involved in planning Kennedy's funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
Instead of dwelling on the details of RFK's assassination, Wahlstrom said he prefers to remember the good things about Kennedy and his legacy, saying the 50th commemoration of his June 6 death should be a chance to be reminded of the dignity of each person and the importance of putting one's values at the forefront.
"Robert Kennedy had the courage to challenge a divided nation to face up to its failings," said Wahlstrom. "He challenged a divided people to step back from the stale, cheap politics of the moment, and make an effort to do better by each other."
(Additional sources of information for this article came from: "85 days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy" by Jules Witcover, The Beaverton Valley Times, The Oregonian and Portland State University's Oregon Public Speakers Collection.)