As a skinny teenage busboy, Juan Romero knelt beside a mortally wounded Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel. On Saturday morning, more than 42 years later, he knelt again, this time beside RFK's grave on what would have been Kennedy's 85th birthday.
Romero was wearing a suit for the first time in his life, saying it was the proper way to show his respect for a man whose memory he has tried to honor by living a life of tolerance and humility.
Getting up the courage to visit Arlington National Cemetery was not easy for Romero, a construction worker from San Jose who has been haunted for decades by the events of June 5, 1968. Under a soft blue sky, with fall colors exploding across the velvety slopes of the cemetery, Romero walked off to be alone and have one last good cry before visiting the grave.
"Sorry," he apologized to his daughter, Elda, and friend, Rigo Chacon, who had made the trip with him from California. "If I can get it out of the way now...." Maybe a good cry would help him keep his composure, he said, when he finally stood at the grave.
I first wrote about Romero in 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the RFK assassination, and was struck by his decency and spirit of goodwill. For years, he had avoided talking about his small part in a national tragedy, but he came to believe it was his duty to speak up about his own take on Kennedy's legacy, in part because hatred and small-mindedness often pollute the national conversation.
Romero's family moved to California from Mexico when he was 10. He lived in projects for a while and might have gotten caught up in the gang life except that his stepfather yanked him out of that world and helped get him a job at the Ambassador Hotel.
When Kennedy called for room service a few nights before the California primary, Romero paid off another busboy for the privilege of delivering his food. Even though he was just 17, Romero knew that RFK was a man of empathy who had walked with Cesar Chavez, and he felt more accepted as an immigrant -- more American -- just knowing that Kennedy might become president.
When Kennedy shook Romero's hand, in the presidential suite, Juan was transformed. In that firm grip, he felt appreciated, he felt whole, he felt like a man. Two nights later, when Kennedy won the primary, Juan raced to the Ambassador pantry and shook RFK's hand again as the candidate went to deliver his victory speech.
After the speech, Romero pressed through the crowd again, his pride swelling. Once more, he shook Kennedy's hand. And then came the gunshot. Four and a half years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby lay dying from an assassin's bullet.
He was shot while holding Romero's hand.
At Arlington on Saturday, Romero, now 60, walked slowly. His chest was tight and his shoulders stiff as he made his way toward the simple, small white cross that marks RFK's grave. He had wept the night before as he anticipated this moment, telling me how he had refused to wash Kennedy's dried blood off his hand.
On the day after the shooting, as he was sitting on the bus on the way to Roosevelt High, a woman, reading the Los Angeles Times, looked at a picture in the paper of a young busboy in a crisp white uniform, a mask of disbelief on his face as he tried to help Kennedy up off the floor.
"This is you," the woman said to him, and Romero looked away in horror.
Forty-two years later, as Romero approached the grave, his friend Chacon stood at a respectful distance, knowing Romero had to do this in his own way. Chacon, a retired TV newsman, had seen Romero break down many times over the years as he relived the trauma. Chacon had finally suggested he visit Arlington for the sake of his own healing.
Romero holds himself at least partly responsible for Kennedy's death, and in his private moment with Kennedy now, he wanted to ask forgiveness. If he hadn't been so intent on shaking Kennedy's hand, he told me, he might have seen and stopped the assassin. He would have taken the bullet himself, he said, if Kennedy could have been spared.
I told Romero it's time he let go of the guilt. RFK, a man of peace, was killed by Sirhan Sirhan, a man of violence and rage. There's no way to make sense of that, but I urged him to listen to his buddy, Chacon, who reminds him that in a moment of tragedy, Juan did a humane thing. He didn't run, he didn't take cover. He tried to help, thinking perhaps that Kennedy had merely been pushed out of harm's way and hit his head on the concrete. When the young busboy realized the situation was grave, he took his own rosary beads out of his shirt pocket, twisted them around Kennedy's hand and prayed for him.
On Saturday, Romero stood silently over the cross, his hands clasped, staring down at the small gravestone. He spoke softly, telling Kennedy how much he loved his country and tried to honor the ideals Kennedy preached.
Bobby Kennedy was a complicated man who had many critics on both the left and the right. But as Romero knelt at the grave and broke down once more, it was for the Kennedy he knew, the one whose words are engraved on a wall near his resting place:
FOR THE RECORD:
Robert Kennedy: In his column Nov. 21, 2010, Steve Lopez wrote about the visit to Robert F. Kennedy's grave by Juan Romero, who as a teenage busboy knelt beside the mortally wounded presidential candidate in 1968. The column, in excerpting from a speech by Kennedy, contained an error. The quote, published in part as "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to take the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world," should have read "... to tame the savageness of man..."—
"What we need in the United States is not division ... not hatred ... not violence or unlawfulness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to take the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world...."
Romero walked away from the grave with perhaps a small piece of his burden lifted. He briefly toured the graves of John and Ted Kennedy, guided by Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the son of Ted. Talking, however briefly, to a Kennedy about RFK's commitment to social justice seemed to help Romero find some peace.