Fifty years ago this month, Robert F. Kennedy’s murder following a campaign speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles convulsed the nation with outrage and grief.
Carmel Valley resident Frederick Schenk, then a teenager in Los Angeles, experienced the tragedy more vividly and poignantly than most — he was there.
Schenk attended Kennedy’s June 5, 1968 appearance with his mother. She and her son were volunteers in Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Supporters viewed Kennedy as the one figure who could heal the nation at a time when it remained shaken by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. two months earlier and deeply polarized over the Vietnam War, social inequities and racial strife.
In the following interview, Schenk relates his experiences and observations on that night and the immediate aftermath.
The son of Holocaust survivor Sidney Schenk, who immigrated from Hungary, Fred Schenk went on to graduate from high school, attend UCLA and obtain a law degree from University of San Diego.
He stayed in San Diego to build his law career, becoming a longtime partner with the firm CaseyGerry. He has been married for 30 years to Shari Schenk, and they have three children.
As part of his commitment to give back to the community, Schenk is a director and former president of the 22nd District Agricultural Association board, which oversees the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Racetrack.
Q: You were 14 years old and at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night Robert F. Kennedy was slain there. What were the circumstances that led to you being there that day?
A: My family lived in Los Angeles and my mother and I had volunteered for Senator Kennedy’s campaign. We were invited to the hotel to see Bobby Kennedy speak and were certain that he was going to win the California Democratic Party nomination that evening.
Q: Could you tell us about what that day was like for you prior to the shooting? What did you do there?
A: I recall going to the Ambassador early in the evening and being in the grand ballroom for hours while watching entertainment and public figures being interviewed by the press. It was an exciting evening. I was given a white straw hat that had the Kennedy name emblazoned on it in blue and red, which I proudly wore all evening.
I was one of the youngest individuals there, so it was more difficult for me to see above the heads of many, and I remember straining to see activities on the stage. The cameras flanked us on elevated platforms. I spent time watching news figures interviewing people, as that was easier for me to see.
Q: Do you remember some of the people you saw there? Who did you have interactions with? Could you describe the atmosphere?
A: I recall seeing several celebrities and political figures. Former NFL defensive tackle Rosey Grier was very noticeable. At the time, he worked as a bodyguard for RFK’s presidential campaign.
Longtime Speaker of the California State Assembly Jesse Unruh was there. And I vividly remember newscaster Roger Mudd, who was broadcasting for CBS News on one of the elevated platforms.
Q: Were you and your mother able to see and meet Senator Kennedy at the Ambassador?
A: My mother was a volunteer and not someone who would have been invited to meet with the senator. The only time we saw Senator Kennedy was for the few minutes he and his wife, Ethel, came out onto the stage area to accept the California Democratic Primary victory and to say they were on to Chicago. We were about 20 yards away from the stage, so they were clearly visible.
Q: Where were you and what were you doing when you heard about the shooting, and what was your reaction and the response of those around you?
A: We were mingling in the ballroom after Senator Kennedy and his entourage left the stage. I was still focused on watching the newscasters, as I had never seen Roger Mudd in person and I was standing close enough to watch him interview people. Moments later, we heard what I thought were balloons popping.
Q: What happened to you and your mother in the aftermath of the tragedy? When did you leave the Ambassador and where did you go? Having been involved in the campaign, were you given any guidance from campaign leaders?
A: I recall people coming onto the stage. Someone standing where Kennedy had stood just moments earlier said into the microphone with their voice cracking that he had been shot. I believe they asked for a doctor and then everyone went into panic mode.
I vividly recall Roger Mudd welling up with tears and I became very frightened. My mother was trying to console me, while she was crying herself.
There was no noticeable security at the hotel as we entered the ballroom. However, after the shooting, I recall that for a long time, we were not permitted to leave the room and then, when we were finally allowed to leave, we went to our car in the parking lot and we had to remain in our cars for a long time. It was over an hour before we were permitted to leave the property after being allowed to go to our car.
It was now the middle of the night and my mother drove us home. I remember waking up early the next morning as my parents came into my bedroom. The first words out of my mouth were, “He’s dead, isn’t he?” They both said yes, with a very sad look on their faces. I did not go to school that day.
Q: How did this experience affect your life?
A: To this day, that evening was one of the most profound life experiences for me. I never imagined when I was going house to house and hanging leaflets on people’s front doors that, days later, I was going to witness the last public appearance of Bobby Kennedy.
As much as I loved participating in political campaigns from a very young age, I stopped working on campaigns and quit going to public events where political candidates were campaigning.
Then, in 1980, I volunteered for Gov. Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign, where I was doing advance work in Madison, Wis. For the intervening 12 years, I was unable to go to anything associated with political campaigns and struggled with my first event for Governor Brown in Madison.
I have one piece of political memorabilia in my law office, which I have displayed for more than 25 years. It is the May 24, 1968, edition of Time magazine, which came out just two weeks before the assassination of Senator Kennedy.
It bears his likeness and was painted by Roy Lichtenstein, who happens to be my favorite artist. It faces me from where I sit at my desk. From it, I draw tremendous inspiration throughout my workday and it is reflected in everything I do for the people I represent.
Q: What impact do you believe the death of Robert F. Kennedy had on the nation and the world?
A: Sen. Robert Kennedy borrowed words first spoken by George Bernard Shaw and he used them in his own short-lived presidential campaign in 1968. I often recall those same words shared by Ted Kennedy about his brother as he eulogized him at his funeral: “Some men see things as they are and say, why. I dream things that never were and say, why not.”
I believe that Robert Kennedy would have sought answers to the tough questions, many of which have yet to be asked by our political leaders. His death left a political void, as we continue to merely see things as they are rather than dream of things that never were.