Skip to main content

45 years ago, a boy's joy...then grief

By Terence Moore, Special to CNN
June 4, 2013 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
Columnist Terence Moore gets chills when he recalls the day he and Robert F. Kennedy, pictured in 1968, touched hands.
Columnist Terence Moore gets chills when he recalls the day he and Robert F. Kennedy, pictured in 1968, touched hands.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Terence Moore was 12 when Robert F. Kennedy reached out and touched his fingertips
  • Hours later on that day, Kennedy gave a passionate speech advocating nonviolence
  • Moore made a sad yet fascinating discovery upon looking up that speech's date
  • Moore on RFK's assasination: "It was as if a family member had died"

Editor's note: Terence Moore has been a sports columnist for more than three decades. He has worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer, the San Francisco Examiner, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AOL Sports. Follow him on Twitter

(CNN) -- Now, 45 years later, I still see it.

I still feel it.

Among the most exhilarating moments of my life was when I touched the fingertips of Robert Francis Kennedy.

That's ultimately where I'm going. Until then, let's discuss the months, weeks and days before everything stood still for a 12-year-old that bright Thursday afternoon on a mostly empty street in northern Indiana. This journey of fate began in a classroom of politically astute sixth-graders at Benjamin Harrison Elementary School in South Bend, Indiana. It was the spring of 1968, when turmoil was everywhere, and it was just the start of horrors to come for what would rank among the most violent years in American history.

Just like that, courtesy of the Tet Offensive in late January and early February, the Vietnam war went from winding down to raging out of control. There were nerve gas leaks in Utah. There was the Orangeburg Massacre in South Carolina, where state police killed three college students protesting a segregated bowling alley.

Then there was our discussion in a back corner of that classroom involving a small gathering of sixth-graders on who deserved the Democratic nomination that year for the presidency of the United States. It was a discussion that had nothing to do with the scheduled agenda of our teacher, Mr. Petrass, and it was a discussion that came out of nowhere.

What about Lyndon Baines Johnson who couldn't solve Vietnam, but who had done more with Civil Rights than any president since Abraham Lincoln? Three years earlier, in Mrs. Plummer's third-grade class, she ushered us to the window to see LBJ's helicopter fly by in the distance en route to landing in town to kickoff his "Great Society" program.

For those who despised war, Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy made sense. He even caused Johnson supporters to squirm in early March by finishing a tight second to the sitting president in the New Hampshire primary.

One more name ... RFK.

He actually spurred the conversation. He was charismatic, and he was highly sympathetic to the black community of which I was a part. Not only that, he was a Kennedy, which was as magical a name then as it is now. On March 16, a few days before our discussion, he did what many thought he would do earlier: He declared he was running for the Oval Office that once belonged to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother who was assassinated five years earlier.

During JFK's administration, Robert was the ruthless attorney general who doubled as the confidant of the president. In 1968, his edges became softer, partly because of his ongoing grief, but mostly because of his sense of mission. He was a 42-year-old senator from New York who was obsessed with helping the poor, and he was an outspoken champion of racial and social justice.

Robert Kennedy also was anti-war. The same as McCarthy. The difference was that McCarthy wasn't a Kennedy. Neither was Johnson nor Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's vice president, who later ran for president after Johnson shocked the universe by abruptly dropping from the race at the end of March.

Our consensus was RFK.

Consider, too, our discussion involved white and black kids. In fact, most South Bend schools were racially mixed, and such was the case even when my parents moved through the school system during the 1940s and 1950s.

South Bend also was the definitive blue-collar town back then as the headquarters for Studebaker cars, Singer Sewing Machine and the Bendix Corporation. Plus, you had the free thinkers at the University of Notre Dame within the city limits. Notre Dame is the world's most famous Catholic university, and the Kennedys are Catholic. Despite their overwhelming wealth, RFK became the face of the Kennedys' desire to help the less fortunate while promoting racial harmony.

Translated: South Bend was made to hug Kennedys.

With that in mind, several days after our discussion in Mr. Petrass' class, a wonderfully crazy thing happened. The principal announced over the intercom that school was finishing early that afternoon to give everybody a chance to stand on the curb in front of the building to see a passing motorcade -- RFK's motorcade. He had landed in town to begin his campaign for the Indiana primary, which would be his first primary since announcing his candidacy.

My birthday is in October, but it came early back then, along with Christmas, Thanksgiving Day and the Fourth of July.

Robert Kennedy?

We were just talking about the guy.

There were no cell phones during the spring of 1968. No Internet. No opportunity to contact the parents, other relatives or friends to inform them about our pending dance with history -- and, yes, even then, we knew this would be something huge for the ages. So my crew of sixth-graders joined hundreds of others on the edge of Western Avenue waiting. We waited some more. We kept waiting. As 20 minutes became a half-hour, the crowd dwindled to half.

By the time the wait reached an hour, it was clear RFK was MIA.

My brother, Dennis, and I were in the same grade. We thought of waiting some more, but we decided to begin our usual half-mile walk home. We moved down Western Avenue, looking over our shoulders along the way -- hoping, praying. Nothing. The motorcade must have gone a different way to the South Bend airport en route to wherever, or maybe RFK just left earlier than expected.

Or maybe ... nah. We kept walking.

Once we got home, we were supposed to start our daily routine. Off with the school clothes, then on to homework and house chores. Then we could enjoy the great outdoors. School day after school day, we did that routine without fail, but this time, Dennis talked me into altering things to take a quick spin around the block on our brand-new bikes.

Good thing.

Soon, we heard sirens. We glanced at each other with wide eyes, and without a word, we pedaled faster than a sunbeam toward Western Avenue, which was a block or so in front of us. We jumped off our bikes with the banana seats and stingray handle bars, and after a group of South Bend motorcycle cops passed by, a convertible headed our way with flashing lights. We knew. We just knew. So we stood there, waiting, hoping, just the two of us, with nobody else in sight on the street. The convertible got closer, and the man sitting on its right side stood up with his light-colored hair waving in the wind as he gave a signal to the driver to slow down.

With the car shifting into a lower gear, the man leaned over as much as he could without tumbling out of his car. It was RFK, alright, and as his convertible kept traveling toward its destination in slightly less than a hurry for that moment, he touched my brother's fingertips and then mine.

We watched the motorcade fade into the distance. Then, after Dennis and I looked at each other with even wider eyes, we unleashed the biggest "WOW!" of joy ever known.

That was in contrast to the sorrow we felt two months later after our mother shook us out of our beds in the middle of the night/morning of June 5. We rushed to the television in our parents' room to see a heavy dose of live grief across the television screen. The man with that light-colored hair waving in the wind was gunned down in the kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and this was after he moved closer that evening to the Democratic nomination by winning the California primary.

It was as if a family member had died.

We touched fingertips.

As the years became decades, I kept thinking: When did that happen? Then came last autumn, when I satisfied my curiosity. I was back in South Bend for a Notre Dame football game, so I dedicated an afternoon to searching old South Bend Tribune newspaper editions at the public library. Within the hour, I found a brilliantly written story of RFK's 1968 trip to northern Indiana in the Tribune's evening edition, and it mentioned how Kennedy was leaving South Bend for Indianapolis.

I got chills. I touched RFK's fingertips a few hours before he gave one of the most passionate speeches ever. He spoke without notes. He urged a potentially angry crowd to stay calm. He preached the need for everybody in Indianapolis to practice nonviolence, especially since he had experienced the suffering that comes from the gruesome death of a brother.

It was April 4, 1968 ...

The day Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terence Moore.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT