Scranton speech ‘marked a turning point’ for RFK

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SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) - The memory of Robert F. Kennedy rekindles bittersweet sentiment every St. Patrick’s Day in Scranton. This year, the remembrance is especially appropriate. On March 17, 1964, the grief-stricken 38-year-old attorney general traveled to Scranton for his first public speaking appearance following the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, less than four months earlier in Dallas.

Kennedy’s address to the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick of Lackawanna County at the Hotel Casey included a poetic, heart-rending allusion to his fallen brother.

“Among the stalwart sons of Erin, many a man wept openly,” Ed Guthman, Kennedy’s press secretary while he was attorney general, later wrote of the event.

Thousands more who listened as the speech was broadcast on radio station WEJL-AM also were moved to tears.

Fifty years after Kennedy’s remarks, his appearance still evokes a deep sense of reverence, even among people who were not among the 1,100 men in the ballroom that evening.

It also represented an important juncture for Kennedy, helping to ease his gloom from the assassination and convincing him to recommit to public service.

“Scranton marked a turning point,” Guthman wrote in “RFK: Collected Speeches.”

“This night was one not to be forgotten and, in fact, it hasn’t been,” said Monsignor Joseph Quinn, vice president for mission and ministry at Fordham University in New York and chaplain to the Friendly Sons.

Quinn attended his first Friendly Sons dinner in 1964 as an eighth-grader at Nativity of Our Lord School.

“The emotional attachment to the memory makes us remember so deeply and so fondly,” he said.

Getting Kennedy here was a major challenge.

“He turned me down,” recalled Senior U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon, who was president of the Friendly Sons in 1964. “I wouldn’t give up.”

Nealon, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Kennedy in 1962, made numerous contacts to try to persuade Robert Kennedy to appear.

He still has a polite rejection letter from Kennedy.

“The pitch we made was, he will never get a reception like he will get in Scranton,” Nealon recalled.

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