The Busboy Who Cradled A Dying RFK Recalls Those Final Moments

Jun 1, 2018
Originally published on June 1, 2018 2:05 pm

Infamous photographs, taken seconds after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, show him lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel's kitchen. A teenage busboy kneels beside him, cradling the senator's head.

That busboy was Juan Romero.

Kennedy was running for president and had just won the California Democratic primary when he was assassinated at the Los Angeles hotel.

In an interview with StoryCorps, Romero, now 67, remembers meeting Kennedy the day before the assassination. He helped deliver Kennedy's room service. It was the first of two brief encounters that left Romero struck by how present and considerate Bobby Kennedy appeared with guests.

The senator had been on the phone when Kennedy's aides opened the door to receive him and his co-worker, Romero recalls. "He put down the phone and says, 'Come on in, boys,' " Romero says. "You could tell when he was looking at you that he's not looking through you — he's taking you into account. And I remember walking out of there like I was 10 feet tall."

The next day, Kennedy defeated Sen. Eugene McCarthy to win the Democratic primary. After giving his victory speech in the ballroom, Kennedy was led through the kitchen on his way to meet the press and he stopped to shake hands with some of the staff along the way.

"I remember extending my hand as far as I could, and then I remember him shaking my hand," Romero says. "And as he let go, somebody shot him."

His next actions are now immortalized in photos taken by journalists there for the victory speech.

"I kneeled down to him and I could see his lips moving, so I put my ear next to his lips and I heard him say, 'Is everybody OK?' I said, 'Yes, everybody's OK.' I put my hand between the cold concrete and his head just to make him comfortable."

"I could feel a steady stream of blood coming through my fingers," Romero says. "I remember I had a rosary in my shirt pocket and I took it out, thinking that he would need it a lot more than me. I wrapped it around his right hand and then they wheeled him away."

Romero, then 17, rode the bus to high school the following day. He tried not to think about the shooting, he says, but a woman sitting nearby had been reading the newspaper plastered with the scene.

"She turned around and showed me the picture," Romero says. "She says, 'This is you, isn't it?' And I remember looking at my hands and there was dried blood in between my nails."

Then, letters addressed to "the busboy" flooded in to the Ambassador Hotel.

"There was a couple of angry letters," he remembers. "One of them even went as far as to say that, 'If he hadn't stopped to shake your hand, the senator would have been alive,' so I should be ashamed of myself for being so selfish," he says.

Romero says it has been "a long 50 years," and he still gets emotional about his role that night. In 2010, he says he paid a visit to RFK's grave in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

"I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him," he says.

As a sign of respect, he says, he bought his first-ever suit for the occasion.

"When I wore the suit and I stood in front of his grave, I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him. I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In StoryCorps this morning, we are looking back 50 years. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was running for president and had just won the California primary when he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel here in Los Angeles. In a famous photograph taken seconds after he was shot, Kennedy lies on the floor. A teenage busboy kneels beside him, cradling the senator's head. That busboy was Juan Romero, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child. At StoryCorps, he remembered meeting Kennedy the day before the assassination, when Romero helped deliver his room service.

JUAN ROMERO: They opened the door. And the senator was talking on the phone. He put down the phone and says, come on in, boys. You could tell when he was looking at you that he's not looking through you. He's taking you into account. And I remember walking out of there like I was 10 feet tall. The next day, he had his victory speech. So they came down the service elevator, which is behind the kitchen. I remember extending my hand as far as I could. And then I remember him shaking my hand. And as he let go, somebody shot him. I kneeled on to him and put my hand between the cold concrete and his head just to make him comfortable. I could see his lips moving. So I put my ear next to his lips. And I heard him say, is everybody OK? I said, yes, everybody's OK. I could feel a steady stream of blood coming through my fingers. I had a rosary in my shirt pocket. And I took it out, thinking that he would need it a lot more than me. I wrapped it around his right hand. And then they wheeled him away.

The next day, I decided to go to school. I didn't want to think about it. But this woman was bringing the newspaper. And you can see my picture in there with the senator on the floor. She turned around and showed me the picture, says, this is you, isn't it? And I remember looking at my hands, and there was dried blood in between my nails. Then I received bags of letters addressed to a busboy. There was a couple of angry letters. One of them even went as far as to say that if he hadn't stopped to shake your hand, the senator would have been alive. So I should be ashamed of myself for being so selfish. It's been a long 50 years. And I still get emotional. Tears come out. But I went to visit his grave in 2010. I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him. And I felt like, you know, it would be a sign of respect to buy a suit. I never owned a suit in my life. And so when I wore the suit, and I stood in front of his grave, I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him. I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good.

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GREENE: Juan Romero there, remembering Senator Robert F. Kennedy's assassination. And if you'd like to look at that iconic photo from that night, we have it up at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.