Couple recalls the day RFK came to town
Couple recalls the day RFK came to town

Bobby Kennedy campaigned in Corvallis a week before he died

When Caroline and Bill Wilkins met Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during his last visit to Corvallis, they believed he'd be the next president of the United States.

"We thought he could beat (President Richard) Nixon. He embodied hope for the nation," said Bill Wilkins, OSU emeritus professor of economics and former dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

The couple, long active in the Democratic Party, were devastated to hear of his death just over a week later, on June 6, 1968.

"I remain convinced that he would have won, and that the world would be a very different place today," said Bill Wilkins, 75.

With the recent release of the movie "Bobby," detailing what happened at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on the night Kennedy was shot, the Wilkinses are looking back on their Kennedy connection.

Bill Wilkins organized Kennedy's campaign for Benton, Linn, Polk, Yamhill and Lincoln counties.

Because she was an elected party official, Caroline Wilkins wanted to appear neutral. She didn't canvas for Kennedy or the other Democratic candidate, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, but she and her husband both stood on the steps of the Benton County Courthouse on May 27, 1968, along with their son, Brian, then 3 years old, as Kennedy addressed a crowd the day before the Oregon presidential primary election.

Bill Wilkins actually didn't want Kennedy to come to Corvallis, because that would mean the campaign office of staffers and OSU student volunteers he oversaw would have to stop canvassing for the day to prepare for the senator's visit. He didn't think it was the most efficient use of time.

Larry O'Brien, longtime aide to both President John F. Kennedy and Sen. Robert Kennedy, insisted that the senator appear at the courthouse to boost his sagging support in the region.

The Wilkinses were among those who met Kennedy at the Corvallis airport. Campaign organizers wanted an open-top car to bring him through town, so local couple Carol and the late James Harman were contacted.

"They called because we had one of the few convertibles in town," recalled Carol Harman, 70.

Although she's a Republican and didn't go see Kennedy while he was in town, Harman agreed to loan their brand-new blue Lincoln convertible to the Kennedy campaign.

Harman left her wedding book in the car, and asked that Kennedy sign it, which he did.

The Wilkinses rode in the backseat of the Harmans' car with Kennedy's dog, Freckles. Kennedy was about two hours late for his courthouse appearance, but there was still a good crowd there.

Bill Wilkins introduced the senator.

"(Kennedy) was very intense," recalled Caroline Wilkins, 69, District 8 parliamentarian for Zonta International and a Wilkins Associates consultant.

Her husband described Kennedy as being "literally focused on getting through the Oregon campaign to get to California, and then to Chicago where the nomination was going to take place."

Kennedy was charismatic, and drew fierce loyalty from his supporters, particularly students, Bill Wilkins said.

"When he lost the Oregon primary (to McCarthy), I had to convince students not to drop out of school to go help with the campaign in California," he said.

Kennedy was shot in the early hours of June 5, after winning the California primary.

The Wilkinses were asleep when they received a call with the bad news.

"It was devastating," Bill Wilkins said.

The Wilkinses said they'll likely see "Bobby." They believe the cast that writer and director Emilio Estevez was able to recruit for the project is a testament to Kennedy's legacy.

"He stood for ethical politics, devotion to good causes that will improve people's lives and helping the underdog. He was incredibly committed to fairness," Caroline Wilkins said.

At a glance

"Bobby," a new movie about what happened at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel on the eve of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, is playing in Corvallis at Regal Ninth Street Cinemas. The movie is rated R for language, drug use and violence.

The film is written and directed by Emilio Estevez, and boasts a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, William H. Macy, Laurence Fishburne, Sharon Stone and Demi Moore.

Mary Ann Albright can be reached at maryann.albright@lee.net or 758-9518.

Subscribe to Daily Headlines

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.