Remembering the Day I Met Robert Kennedy

How an afternoon lark in 1968 turned into the meeting of a lifetime.

Robert F. Kennedy in 1964
Robert F. Kennedy in 1964 (photo: Photo: Cecil W. Staughton)

I was 17 years old, turning 18 in a couple of months. I was going to be able to vote in the upcoming election. I was about to graduate from Marian High School in Omaha, Nebraska, in a few days. The day was May 14, 1968.

My friend Gloria lived down the street from me. Nebraska can have some pretty extreme winters and very hot summers, but the spring can be beautiful. That particular day was one of those nice warm days. Gloria called me and asked if I wanted to go to get a Coke and maybe afterward drive to Eppley Airport and watch the planes take off. We liked to imagine we would be flying off to Europe or Spain or anywhere that was exciting.

“I have a great idea,” she said as we were singing along with a Sonny and Cher song on the radio. “Let’s go to the area where the private planes land. Maybe we’ll get to see someone famous.” Gloria was a few years older than me so I trusted her choice of entertainment.

After parking her car she yelled over the noise of the plane flying above us, “There’s a plane coming in now just about to land over by the private airfield.” We took off for the gate where the plane was expected to touch down at any moment. There were a dozen or more people standing around. Gloria and I were laughing at our potential good fortune for having shown up at an opportune moment. We noticed some men that looked like reporters holding notebooks and a couple of bigger cameras. “Maybe we’ll show up on the news if it’s somebody really famous,” said Gloria.

We stood for a few minutes trying to act like we belonged there. We were approached by a couple of men that we later learned were FBI. They must have thought we were pretty harmless, but still they asked us in a stern voice, “What are you two doing here?” Looking at each other rather sheepishly and trying to think fast on my feet, I responded, “We were invited.”

“Are you two some of the kids with the Young Democrats of America?” I looked at Gloria and she looked back at me. That sounded as good of a description as anything.

“Sure,” I answered.

“Where are your buttons?”

“We left them in the car.”

Now my mother use to quote this famous line when she caught us in the lie: “It’s not the lie, it’s the upkeep.” At that moment, my good Catholic girl guilt was creeping in and I totally understood what that saying meant.

Then he said, “You two can stand over here, close to where the plane lands.”

Another man approached us. The FBI guy explained that we were with the Young Democrats and we were okay. They nodded and then one of them reached in their pocket and handed us each a button that said “Kennedy” on it. “Here, put these on.” Gloria was about to laugh but we continued to try and keep our cool. 

When they walked away I whispered to her, “Kennedy. Do you suppose that’s whose coming in?” She whispered back, “Who knows. Maybe it’s just someone with the campaign. And I never knew you could be such a good liar.” 

Within the next 15 minutes the plane landed. Down the stairs of the plane walked Robert Kennedy. His wife, Ethel, was close behind him. He shook hands with several of the reporters and other men close by. Ethel headed toward Gloria and me and said, “Well, who are you?” Nervously, I explained to her that my name was Cathy and introduced her to Gloria. She responded with a smile, “I have a daughter about your age whose name is Kathleen.” One of the FBI men whispered something to her. She told us, “I think it’s great when young people are interested in government.” Gloria and I could only nod in agreement.

Ethel turned around as her husband was walking toward us. “Bobby,” she said, “these two young girls are with the Young Democrats of America.” Standing in front of us now was Bobby Kennedy, and I was wearing a sheepish smile, since I started really feeling guilty about beginning this introduction with a lie. He shook both our hands and said it was great meeting us.

He seemed preoccupied. He turned around and commented, “Has anyone heard how the primary is going?” This was 1968, remember. There was no internet or cable news. I blurted out, “Gloria and I just heard on the way here that you were ahead in Nebraska’s primary by a couple of points.” At this point he became excited, “Did you all hear that? She said that we were ahead!” Now, let's stop for a minute. He was getting the news about his election from me. The truth was, I barely heard the news report because the Sonny and Cher song “The Beat Goes On” was on my brain more so than the election. He turned toward me and said, “Thanks for the update. It was nice of you both to come down to see us.” All we could do was nod. 

Bobby and Ethel Kennedy were escorted to the door of a nearby limo. Ethel looked at me one more time and waved. We were asked to provide someone with our address so we could be invited to a convention in Lincoln. We left the air field and ran toward our car very excited. Obviously, in this day and age a meeting like this would not have happened. I certainly wouldn’t have been the one telling him about his results in the Nebraska primary. The security presence would have consisted of more than just a two men. When we drove away we knew it was pretty amazing that we were able to meet somebody this noteworthy. We talked about how kind he was and how sweet Ethel was. We both commented about his acknowledging us as if we were important. We laughed all the way home about being with the Young Democrats of America. We didn’t even know there was such an organization. I remember saying, “Well, we’re young and we’re Democrats, so I guess it wasn’t too much of a lie!” More laughter came from that car ride home. 

Three weeks later, Robert F. Kennedy was shot and fatally wounded at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died on June 6, 1968.