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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.

History supported the judge's pledge.

Kennedy was most aware of the messianic reception then-Sen. John Kennedy received when he campaigned for president in Scranton in October 1960. A crowd estimated at 16,000 - several times capacity - packed the Watres Armory to hear him speak, and a throng estimated at 30,000 gathered outside to hear the speech through loudspeakers.

Nealon credits former Gov. David Lawrence, a Democrat from Pittsburgh who finished his term in 1963, with convincing Kennedy to make the trip.

"Lawrence told him, 'If you are going anywhere, go to Scranton,'" Nealon said.

On March 4, he agreed to come.

When the attorney general and his entourage arrived at the local airport aboard the Kennedy family's airplane, 2,500 people mobbed him. The crowd surged past police lines and swarmed the attorney general as he stepped off the plane.

"He expected a small committee at the airport," said Nealon, who greeted Kennedy at the airport. "He could hardly get off the plane. He was overwhelmed."

Police had to intervene to enable Kennedy to step off a passenger loading ramp and they established another line to separate the crowd as he was driven off the tarmac.

Kennedy traveled to South Scranton to turn the ceremonial first spade at the John F. Kennedy Elementary School and 5,000 people packed the event. It was the first school in the nation to be named after the late president.

He told the students at the ceremony: "Remember who got you out of school."

As he arrived at the Hotel Casey afterward to freshen up, Kennedy was encircled in the lobby by 300 well-wishers, straining to see or touch him.

After a short break, he traveled to Yatesville for brief remarks to the Pittston Area Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. It was before the construction of Interstate 81 and thousands stood along the route in a snow shower to catch a glimpse as he passed.

When he walked into the ballroom at the Hotel Casey for his first formal address after the assassination, he had transformed.

For most of his adult life, he had promoted his brother's political career.

Now, he was on his own.

He was no longer the aggressive investigator who served as counsel to the Senate Labor Rackets Committee and tangled fiercely in the 1950s with Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa.

He was no longer the fearsome enforcer of his brother's administration who had spearheaded an aggressive crackdown on organized crime and developed a reputation for ruthlessness. As Robert Kennedy stepped to the microphone at the Hotel Casey that night, he emerged as a compassionate advocate for social and economic justice.

After leading a life of comfort and privilege as the son of a famous and powerful multimillionaire, he now identified with victims, the dispossessed and the downtrodden.

For the first time in public, he displayed a level of vulnerability that would remain part of his persona for the rest of his life.

"It's almost as though in one speech, he was beginning to transform," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, whose father, then-state Sen. Robert P. Casey, was toastmaster at the dinner and went on to be elected governor in 1986. "It was remarkable."

Kennedy's appearance before the Friendly Sons took less than 20 minutes and his formal speech took 15 minutes.

In introductory comments, he recalled how President Kennedy spoke often of his 1960 Scranton visit.

"He felt that when he was going to Dublin (in 1963), he was going to get the same kind of reception that he got in Scranton," Robert Kennedy said.

He mentioned he had told Dave Powers, an aide and close friend of the president, of his decision to come to Scranton.

Powers replied, "They are our kind of Irish."

Displaying his wry humor in his formal remarks, Kennedy visited the Irish legend of how an angel granted St. Patrick three wishes.

One was the release of 12 Irish souls from hell every Thursday and Saturday.

"Judge Nealon just told me he thinks that several of them are here tonight," Kennedy observed.

Turning to the essence of the address, he questioned whether it was appropriate for the United States to maintain alliances with totalitarian, repressive regimes solely because they were non-Communist. He associated centuries of discrimination against the Irish with U.S. racial discrimination of the 1960s.

He asserted a universal right to economic and political freedom and made an eerie, foretelling reference to the Vietnamese people's entitlement to self-determination.

At the end, he recited verses from a lament written by Thomas Davis, a 19th-century Irish writer and politician. It paid tribute to Owen Roe O'Neill, a 17th-century Irish soldier who died mysteriously after leading a Catholic revolt against England and attempting unsuccessfully to reintroduce Catholicism as the dominant religion in Northern Ireland.

It propelled the speech to another realm:

"I like to think - as did President Kennedy - that the emerald thread runs into the cloth we weave today, that these policies in which he believed so strongly and which President (Lyndon) Johnson is advancing, are the current flowering of the Irish tradition. They are directed toward freedom for all Americans here and for all peoples throughout the world. And I like to think that these policies will survive and continue as the cause of Irish freedom survived the death of 'The Liberator,' Owen Roe O'Neill.

"As you'll recall, O'Neill was one of the great figures of Irish history. It was of the period after his death, when the entire Irish nation was overwhelmed with grief, that the following lines were written:

'Sagest in the council was he, Kindest in the hall; Sure we never won a battle - 'twas Owen won them all Soft as woman's was your voice, O'Neill Bright was your eye. Oh! why did you leave us, Owen? Why did you die?

'Your troubles are all over,

'You're at rest with God on high,

'But we're slaves, and we're orphans, Owen!

'- why did you die?

'We're sheep without a shepherd, When the snow shuts out the sky -

'Oh! why did you leave us Owen? Why did you die?'

"So, on this St. Patrick's evening let me urge you one final time to recall the heritage of the Irish. Let us hold out our hands to those who struggle for freedom today - at home and abroad - as Ireland struggled for a thousand years.

"Let us not leave them to be 'sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky.' Let us show them that we have not forgotten the constancy and the faith and the hope - of the Irish."

"I just remember being struck by how emotional it was and looking at men who were tearing up," Quinn recalled. "The hearts were already so tenderized by the trauma of President Kennedy. It didn't take much for the tears to begin to flow."

Guthman, who won a 1950 Pulitzer Prize as a reporter with the Seattle Times and later taught journalism at the University of Southern California, described Kennedy's own emotional journey with the verse in his book, "We Band of Brothers," a memoir of his experiences with Kennedy.

The attorney general inserted the verse into the speech but each time he read it, he broke down, Guthman wrote.

As Kennedy prepared to travel to Scranton and received a copy of the speech, Guthman had stricken the lines from the final draft.

"Why did you do that?" Kennedy asked.

"You'll never get through it," Guthman said. "You don't have to put yourself through that."

Although burdened by remorse, Kennedy felt compelled.

"I've been practicing in front of a mirror," he told Guthman. "I can't get through it yet ... but I will."

And he did.

Kennedy's whirlwind, seven-hour trip to the region revived his spirits and resolve.

"On the plane back to Washington, astonished by the reception he had received ... he made an irrevocable decision about his future," wrote Guthman, who died in 2008. "Somehow, he would remain in public service."

The Scranton trip brought Kennedy to a realization that the affection and appreciation people felt for his brother had been transferred to him. He had been adrift for months after the assassination and knew he could not remain in President Johnson's cabinet.

The two were bitter enemies. Kennedy had vigorously opposed Johnson's selection as vice president on the 1960 Democratic presidential ticket, and Johnson held the attorney general directly accountable for his exclusion from President Kennedy's inner circle.

Before his local appearance, Robert Kennedy had confided to others that he was thinking about leaving government completely, becoming a college president or taking a year off to travel and write.

"He didn't know what he was going to do with his life," Nealon said. "It was acknowledged by all that Scranton was a wake-up call. This turned him around."

Kennedy resigned as attorney general in September 1964 and was elected that November to the U.S. Senate from New York.

Amid growing opposition to the Vietnam War, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president on March 16, 1968. Minutes after declaring victory in the California primary election, he was shot in a Los Angeles hotel kitchen pantry on June 5, 1968.

He died the following day in a Los Angeles hospital. He was 42.

Casey, who was 3 years old at the time of Kennedy's Friendly Sons speech, said his father brought home an autographed program from the Friendly Sons dinner for his mother, Ellen.

She still has the memento.

"It said, 'For Ellen, I hope we meet someday - Robert F. Kennedy,'" Casey said.

They never met.

In 2008, Casey shared a recording of the Friendly Sons speech with Kennedy's brother, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy.

"He said, 'Thanks for sending me that audio of my brother's speech. I had heard about that speech for years, but I never actually heard it,'" Casey recalled.

Edward Kennedy died in 2009.

Famous speakers preceded and followed Robert Kennedy to the dais at Friendly Sons' gatherings, including Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Harry Truman before and after his presidency, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and then-Sen. Joe Biden, the current vice president.

The Kennedy family's ties to the Friendly Sons continued, with appearances by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his cousin, Mark Shriver,

But Robert Kennedy's address stands apart.

His poignant display of courage and hope spans generations.

"People of our area will always feel a special part of that story," Casey said.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1gxTipB

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Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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