RFK in Pomona with a sombrero


Photo from Pomona Public Library via REN

Forty-one years ago today (April 20, 1968), Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a luncheon crowd at Robbie’s in Pomona during his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president and from there went to ONT for a second speech, events I wrote a column about a year ago. (You can read the complete text by clicking the “Continue reading” link at the end of this entry.)

Since then I found a short video clip online of an RFK campaign appearance in Pomona. The curious thing is that the tree-filled backdrop didn’t seem to be along East Second Street, where Robbie’s was located. Did RFK stop at Fairplex or Cal Poly or…?

So that’s a mystery. Here’s a link to the Jeff Greenfield CBS report from May 2008. The video, alas, doesn’t seem to work anymore (I last watched it a couple of months ago), but you can try it yourself, or at least read Greenfield’s text story.

Greenfield, now a senior political correspondent, was a 24-year-old junior speechwriter for the campaign. Let me reprint the relevant portion from his story:

“There was also a lot of humor. Robert Kennedy had very little patience with the platitudes of politics, and he often mocked them — and himself. Listen to his explanation to the citizens of Pomona, Calif., why he won’t put on the oversize sombrero they gave him.

“Kennedy said: ‘What if it’s too big? What if it’s too small? Then it’ll fall down over my ears and you’ll be embarrassed that it’s too big. Let me try it on at home.’

“The crowd implored him to try it on.

“Kennedy said: ‘I’ll say this, if I’m elected president of the United States with your help, the first day I’m in the White House, I’ll put the hat on.'”

One more loss from RFK’s early demise.

RFK’s rally was the place to be
(Sunday, May 18, 2008)

FORTY YEARS ago Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy came to Ontario and Pomona .

Kennedy hit both cities on May 20, 1968, part of a frenetic day of campaigning in Southern California before the state’s June 4 Democratic primary.

” Kennedy Due Here Monday,” the Saturday edition of the Pomona Progress-Bulletin reported on Page One.

Kennedy would speak at Robbie’s, a banquet hall on East Second Street, for which tickets would be sold in advance for $2.50.

(If you’re chuckling about the low price, note that Kennedy ‘s luncheon topic was inflation.)

May 20 began with Kennedy and his entourage leaving L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, where they were staying, to make campaign stops in Alhambra, San Gabriel and Duarte.

Around noon, his motorcade of two convertibles, two motorcycle officers and two busloads of journalists exited the 10 Freeway at Garey Avenue and headed south.

At Second Street, they turned left to travel the four blocks to Robbie’s.

As the Progress-Bulletin described the scene: “A crowd of 3,500 greeted the presidential hopeful in a frenzied appearance on the Pomona Mall.”

Illuminating one source of Kennedy ‘s appeal, a poignant photo caption read: “Senator Robert F. Kennedy gazes briefly at a Pomona man Monday who shouted, arm outstretched, ‘I knew your brother! We talked once!”‘

Bob Terry was there.

Terry, then 14, was an eighth-grader at Fremont Junior High. He and his classmate Lou Maestas cut class and walked to the downtown pedestrian mall to see Kennedy , guessing correctly that it was the place to be that day.

When Kennedy ‘s convertible rounded the corner from Garey, Terry and Maestas ran alongside. They paced his car for two blocks as Kennedy shook or touched hands with people in the crowd.

“I got to shake his hand twice,” Terry told me proudly. “Lou got to shake his hand once. … Not a lot of things I remember from 40 years ago, but that one I’ll never forget.”

The Prog painted a vivid description.

” Kennedy appeared weary as he rode into Pomona but he smiled steadily and leaned down to shake hands with his admirers who followed his slowly moving convertible along the Mall. He was in his shirt sleeves, sunburned, the familiar shaggy haircut windblown.

“An aide held the New York senator about the waist to keep him from being pulled from the car. Several people tried to snatch his tie pin. Parents held their infants up to see Kennedy over the crowd.”

Not everyone was on board: One or two signs for Democratic rival Eugene McCarthy were spotted.

Kennedy changed shirts, put on a jacket and, refreshed, spoke to a luncheon crowd of 400, many of them Pomona Valley movers and shakers.

His speech, most of which was printed in the Prog, was boilerplate stuff. But the New Yorker did make a local joke.

“I understand this is a nonpartisan lunch, so I’ll just say if I was running for office, and if I won the California primary, then I’d be able to come back to the Los Angeles County Fair in September. That’s actually why I’m running for president.”

At about 1:30 p.m., after the luncheon, Kennedy ‘s motorcade headed back up Garey to the 10 and east to Ontario. His guest for the ride: Ontario Mayor Howard Snider.

“The driver and Kennedy were in the front seat and I was in the back with his dog,” Snider, now 79, told me with a chuckle last week.

Because it was an open car, and he had a dog to contend with, Snider couldn’t really have a conversation with the candidate. But it was a memorable ride.

Other motorists on the freeway spotted Kennedy .

“People would honk their horn. They would see who it was and beep their horn,” Snider said.

At Vineyard Avenue, the motorcade headed south to Ontario International Airport.

Some 1,500 people were waiting.

“As Kennedy ‘s convertible swung into the driveway in front of the terminal,” the Ontario Daily Report wrote, “the crowd cheered and pushed in to greet him.”

Many held pro- Kennedy banners. A few had posters for McCarthy and Richard Nixon. One jokester waved a sign reading “Mrs. Kennedy for Secretary of Labor,” referring to her and her husband’s 10 children.

A description in the Report was picturesque and, viewed in retrospect, eerie.

“… his jacket was missing, his hair was disheveled, his bright blue shirt was hanging from his trousers and his arms appeared scratched and red from the clutching grasps of the crowds.

“But the senator appeared cool and calm at all times, even when what was believed to be a firecracker exploded when he arrived at the airport. It sounded similar to a gunshot.”

Kennedy gave a five-minute speech outside the terminal. He was against taxes, welfare, Vietnam and a guaranteed annual wage.

“Will you support me in my campaign?” Kennedy concluded.

“Yes!” the crowd shouted. (Except for the Nixon supporters.)

Soon he was inside. Snider, a Republican, said Kennedy posed for pictures with him and other dignitaries.

A Daily Report photo showed Kennedy walking along the passenger concourse to a waiting plane as more hands reached out for him.

And that was all.

Kennedy flew to San Diego, made four appearances there that afternoon, then landed at Long Beach before a motorcade took him through L.A. suburbs, including Monterey Park.

An Associated Press story in the Prog about the evening of May 20 described the throngs around his motorcade as “the wildest scene in nine weeks of campaigning.”

Kennedy was held about the waist by his security guard as he stood on the hood of the convertible, shaking hands. The clutching crowd grabbed – why not? – his shoes. An aide had to lend Kennedy his own shoes to be presentable for a speech at a synagogue.

The Prog’s headline: “People Tear Off Kennedy ‘s Shoes in L.A.”

Fourteen days later, on the night of June 4, Kennedy won the California primary. But shortly after midnight, during a victory party at the Ambassador Hotel, gunman Sirhan Sirhan mortally wounded him.

He died the next day, June 6, 1968.

Bob Terry recalls how school let out when President Kennedy was killed in 1963, but Terry was young enough that the event didn’t mean much to him.

Robert Kennedy ‘s death was different for Terry and his pal Maestas.

“Here we were, tough little eighth-graders,” said Terry, now a 54-year-old salesman in Rancho Cucamonga, “but when we heard he was killed, me and him were just in tears. We couldn’t let anybody else see us.

“We felt so special that we got to shake his hand.”

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