When Robert F. Kennedy’s body lay in state at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Friday, June 7, 1968, I was asked to help with the planning and the details of that day. The passage of time has not helped me to overcome the painful and emotional experience of what I saw, heard and felt even though I was just a little cog in a very big wheel.

Next week it will be fifty years since Robert F. Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles very early in the a.m. on June 5, 1968 after learning that he had beaten Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary on Tuesday, June 4, 1968.

After Kennedy’s death at around 1 a.m. PDT  on June 6, I got a call later that morning from Phil Ryan, a former colleague in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. Phil ran Kennedy’s New York office. Phil asked me if I would help him with the planning for a rotating “honor guard” to stand facing the casket in the center aisle of the cathedral. He asked me to meet him in an hour at Park Agency in the old Pan Am building, a Kennedy family office run by Steve Smith, Kennedy’s brother-in-law.

When I got to the office, a list of those selected to serve was handed to us by C. Douglas Dillon. Those on the list were told to appear at the Madison Avenue entrance to the cathedral the next day, June 7, 1968 and to ask for us. While many on the list were well known public and Kennedy family names, many were not.

One of the names was Stanley Tretick, a photo journalist close to President Kennedy and the family. He had taken many of the iconic photos of the Kennedys, including the picture of John F. Kennedy, Jr. under the President’s oval office desk. He was very close to Sen. Kennedy but not well known to the public.

It was 91 degrees outside. The line to enter the cathedral went up Fifth Avenue from 50th Street to Central Park. Inside, without air conditioning, it was dangerously hot and humid.

We told the first persons flanking the casket as “honor guard” that we would relieve them in thirty minutes after the public was admitted. (None of them would leave when the time came although all were dripping with perspiration.  Eventually they did.) When the guards accepted their replacements throughout the day, similar unwillingness to leave and to be replaced was typical.

We were totally unprepared for the reactions of the thousands of persons filing past the casket as were those guarding it. Sobbing, screaming, moaning, praying were the norm. The guards, facing away from the mourners, felt arms and hands that they could not see brush by them as people struggled to touch the casket.   Many people collapsed after passing the casket as a result of emotion and cruel heat. The police ran out of smelling salts.

Phil and I were also unprepared for the arrival of dozens of people who wanted to guard the casket but were not on the list. These people were encouraged to show up because WPIX had a single camera on the casket from high up in the cathedral broadcasting an unaccompanied picture  throughout the day. Many of those who just showed up were public officials who could get by the police outside but often had no relationship with Sen. Kennedy.

Phil and I decided to let them all serve.


Again through Phil, I had served as a sometime advance man in Sen. Kennedy’s Senate campaign. Anyone who has done that job knows that the candidate often rejects the timeliness and organization that the advance man is supposed to enforce. So it was with Robert Kennedy. After an afternoon of not-so-subtle entreaties to get out of wherever we were and to move to the next stop–including tugging at his suit jacket more than once–Kennedy, using his little boy voice, asked plaintively, “Why are you doing this to me?”

And Kennedy did not carry money. So he once asked me to quickly buy him a sweater at the old Rogers Peet near City Hall park because it was a freezing late October day and he did not wear an overcoat. I gladly did. I’m proud of the investment I made in him.



When the day ended at the cathedral, I took the last train to East Hampton and cried all the way out.

Robert Kennedy was 42.