It was 50 years ago today that Robert Kennedy stopped in Beatrice during a campaign tour through Nebraska ahead of the state primary.
Kennedy was running for President at a time when Nebraska was a key player in the primary elections. He’d spent previous weeks on a tour of the state by train, stopping in towns and various stations around the state. But, on May 10, 1968, RFK came to Beatrice.
Kennedy was on the southeast-Nebraska leg of his tour when he arrived in town, flanked by two campaign buses and a parade of national print and television journalists. He arrived via convertible at Charles Park at 10:15 a.m., to a waiting crowd of 3,000 people.
The Pickrell Community Band played as Kennedy walked up to the stage for his 20-minute speech, where he touched on the Vietnam War and issues affecting rural communities.
Juniors and seniors from Beatrice High School as well as students from St. Joseph and Pershing schools were on hand for Kennedy’s campaign stop before the runoff against Senator Eugene McCarthy. Seeing how many students were in the crowd, Kennedy remarked, “Just remember that it was a Kennedy that got you out of class.”
Sarah Morris was a student at Tri County when Kennedy came to town and, with her parents' permission, skipped school to head to Beatrice to see the candidate.
Morris came with a black and white camera she’d won the year before by selling magazine subscriptions and finagled her way to just a few feet away from Kennedy.
“I can remember a really big crowd,” Morris said. “I just elbowed my way in and got in and under and scooted until I was right up next to the convertible he was standing in the back of.”
Morris said she’s never really been much of a political person but through the rose-colored glasses of youth Kennedy was an incredibly charismatic figure.
Kennedy proposed a rural community services program, saying the country had focused its attention on the urban poor and equal emphasis was needed for poverty in rural America as well.
He said he’d focus his efforts on raising farm income, increasing federal assistance for rural infrastructure and ending the Vietnam War.
According to reports from the Beatrice Daily Sun on that day, much of the crowd, especially younger people, were waving placards in support of Kennedy, though there were a few McCarthy signs and even a couple touting Richard Nixon.
Following Kennedy’s address, then Beatrice Mayor Ray Elwood presented something called the “Homestead Deed” on behalf of the Women’s Division and the Chamber of Commerce.
Kennedy thanked him and said, “I have two questions, is it free and is it large enough for 13 people in case I lose?”
That comment sent national press scrambling to the payphones, as it was the first time Kennedy had mentioned his wife Ethyl was pregnant with their 11th child.
On his way out of town, Kennedy stopped at the Beatrice State Home on the way to Tecumseh. Kennedy said he wanted to meet the children at the home and was led to the pediatric hospital, the training preschool and the building for children who were deemed to be severely disabled.
Patients lined the roadways on the grounds, and Kennedy shook hands and signed autographs for them on his way inside.
According to the book “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” by Larry Tye, New York Post reporter Helen Dudar said Kennedy spent time visiting with the children, many of whom could not speak.
Kennedy stayed at the state home for about 45 minutes before leaving Beatrice for the last time.
During his trip through southeast Nebraska, Kennedy also dedicated the Czech Village in Wilber on May 12, the same day astronaut John Glenn went to Fairbury to stump for Kennedy in front of a crowd of 500 people.
On Monday, May 13, Kennedy’s opponent McCarthy also stopped in Beatrice to speak. A crowd of around 1,800 came to watch what was planned to be a 20 minute speech. A sputtering public address system cut McCarthy’s time on stage in Charles Park to about eight minutes due to a mishap explained in the May 13 issue of the Beatrice Daily Sun.
“Dick Arntt, who set up the P.A. system for the McCarthy Rally in Charles Park this morning, said the sound went off after an elderly couple accidentally stumbled over the power line, near the library,” the paper read. “Dale Workman saw what had happened, and reconnected the cable, but by that time McCarthy was leaving the platform, according to Arntt.”
Kennedy spent about an hour and a half in Beatrice during his tour of Nebraska. He ended up winning the Nebraska primary election.
Less than a month after visiting Beatrice, Kennedy was shot and killed in Los Angeles on June 6, 1968, just after winning the California primary. There’s a plaque in Charles Park erected several years ago to commemorate his 1968 visit featuring a photo taken by Morris.
“I can remember being just stunned that he was shot and killed less than a month later,” Morris said. “It was incredibly sad for that lost opportunity for a young, charismatic leader of our country.”