A: Yes. Robert F. Kennedy spoke in La Grande and surrounding towns on May 22, 1968, just 14 days before he was mortally wounded in Los Angeles.
The Democratic presidential candidate came to Eastern Oregon while stumping for votes in the Oregon primary, then enormously important because relatively few states had primaries.
Kennedy, a U.S. Senator from New York, arrived in La Grande late in the morning and spoke at what is now Quinn Coliseum. He opened his presentation by telling his audience, “There are two things I’ve always wanted to do in my life, become a ventriloquist and visit La Grande,” according to David Halberstam’s book “The Unfinished Odyssey.”
Halberstam, who died in 2007, wrote that Kennedy often said this when visiting a small town, inserting the name of the community. The author picked La Grande as an example of this practice.
In a more serious vein, Kennedy said during his La Grande talk, he believed it was critical more Americans step forward to help tackle the nation’s problems which included civil rights, crime, the Vietnam War and poverty.
“The country needs to have a new spirit and courage to face national failures. We should be masters of the government, not its servants,” Kennedy said, according to a May 23, 1968, Observer article by Dory Fleshman.
Kennedy spoke in
La Grande after arriving by plane from Pendleton. The senator looked surprised when he was greeted by a forklift as he prepared to step off his plane. The sight compelled Kennedy to quote one of Ireland’s best-known playwrights.
“In the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘There has got to be a better way,’” Kennedy said to the small crowd gathered around him, according to the late Bob Caldwell, an Oregonian editor, in a May 18, 1995, Observer article.
Kennedy’s comment about the forklift was made in good humor and without sarcasm.
“Everybody thought it was funny,” said Caldwell, then a student at what is now EOU and a Kennedy campaign volunteer who helped organize his visit.
The forklift was needed because the La Grande airport was not equipped to serve the type of plane Kennedy flew in on. The aircraft was too high for any of the mobile steps the airport had.
Kennedy was driven to downtown La Grande where he rode in a motorcade on Adams Avenue and up Fourth Street. Kennedy traveled in an Oldsmobile convertible with La Grande Police Chief Robert Brawner.
Those on the motorcade route who welcomed Kennedy who was Catholic, included nuns working at the old St. Joseph Hospital, now the Joseph Building. The sisters, wearing their habits, ran into the street to shake Kennedy’s hand, according to the May 18, 1995, Observer article.
When Kennedy was in Pendleton, he enjoyed a breakfast with farmers at a ranch in the Despain Gulch area. Kennedy was asked during the breakfast if he would appoint a farmer as the next secretary of agriculture.
“I’ve got a few hurdles to overcome before I appoint him,” Kennedy said wryly,
according to a story in the May 23, 1968, East Oregonian.
Later Kennedy spoke to a crowd of more than 1,200 at a Pendleton auditorium, with his family’s springer spaniel, Freckles, at his feet. The East Oregonian reported the farmers in the audience were probably outnumbered by the journalists and television camera crews scurrying around.
When he left La Grande, Kennedy flew to Baker City (then known as Baker). Kennedy’s party, which came in two planes, had 54 people, including campaign workers and members of the media, according to the May 23, 1968, edition of the Baker Democratic Herald.
Kennedy spoke about his opposition to the Vietnam War the United States was then involved in during the address he gave in Baker. The senator talked of how unfair the ongoing military draft was.
“Is it right for a Baker boy to be drafted and sent to Vietnam when a Vietnamese boy can buy his way out of the Army?” said Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963 in Dallas.
Robert Kennedy concluded his May 22 Eastern Oregon swing with an appearance in Ontario. He was greeted by around 300 people at Ontario’s airport and later between 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered to hear his formal address, according to the May 23, 1968, Ontario Argus Observer.
Kennedy told the crowd in Ontario he believed farmers had the right to organize. He said this might be important in light of the increasing number of large corporate farms.
The presidential candidate rode in a motorcade during a portion of his Ontario visit, riding down Fourth Street in a convertible. Kennedy was anything but anchored to his vehicle.
“At times he bolted from his open convertible to race down sidewalks shaking hands as he went,” the Argus Observer reported.
Kennedy lost the Oregon primary on May 28 to Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. McCarthy received 44 percent of the vote to Kennedy’s 38 percent. In Union County, McCarthy beat Kennedy 54 percent to 45 percent.
Kennedy went on to win the June 4 California primary, greatly boosting his chances of landing the Democratic nomination. Tragically he died June 6 after being shot 26 hours earlier during a
victory celebration at a Los Angeles hotel.