Martin, Bobby and Ball State: Remembering RFK's visit to campus in 1968

Topics: College of Communication Information and Media, Alumni

March 25, 2008

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Although it's been 40 years since Robert F. Kennedy visited Ball State University while campaigning for president, the memories are still clear to those in the audience during that politically stormy time.

Earl Conn, a retired Ball State journalism professor who worked tirelessly to bring the political candidate to campus, recalls that more than 12,000 people packed Men's (now Irving) Gym - which seated about 7,000 for basketball - momentarily causing Kennedy to become separated from his wife, Ethel, when they attempted to leave after his speech. Conn was Kennedy's escort for the day, April 4, 1968.

Accounting Professor Cindy Van Alst was a shy freshman that remembers feeling heartbroken when she learned, in June, that RFK had been assassinated in Los Angeles at the end of the California primary.  Only weeks before, she'd stood within a few feet of the dynamic speaker.

Alumni Association staff member Susan Taylor was a student reporter, who - like thousands of others in the crowd - was mesmerized by the mere presence of Kennedy.

"I'm sure it's mainly nostalgia, but I think there's also a bit of that Kennedy 'Camelot' mystique that plays a role in our memory of Bobby's visit to Ball State," Conn said.

Bringing Camelot to Campus

Conn served as the Delaware County chairman of the Kennedy for President committee and was faculty advisor for the student activist group, Ball State Kennedy for President Club, created less than a month before the New York senator's visit to campus for an afternoon stump speech. At the time, Kennedy was canvassing the nation in pursuit of the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

"To get access to the Men's Gym, you had to have a student group to put in that request," explained Conn. "So that's what we did - we formed a group."

Conn said the eventual turnout left many organizers of the event surprised, "because before he showed up that day, we didn't know what to expect." Indeed, organizers had first looked at bringing Kennedy to the much smaller Emens Auditorium, believing that the youthful politician would not be able to fill the gym.

From the outset, Conn said, it was evident Kennedy knew how to work the large crowd, walking through the mass of people, shaking hands with many as he made his way to the stage.

"Like any good politician, Bobby had this self-deprecating sense of humor about him," recalled Conn. "He came across as sincere and patient. He listened to students' questions and he answered them all."

Kennedy spoke for about 30 minutes, mostly about domestic issues and international problems that could arise post-Vietnam and then took questions for another 20 minutes from the crowd.

Shock and sorrow

"I still have an autographed picture of RFK in a box," said Taylor, now the assistant director of constituent relations for the Alumni Association. She remembers clearly covering Kennedy's speech as a student reporter for the Orient, Ball State's yearbook.

"It was very crowded but still exciting for me because I had never seen a Kennedy in real life before that," she said. "Some of us from the Orient staff attended to get details, but also out of budding political interest.

"I also remember thinking that he didn't talk very long. A more intense memory, though, is the shock and sorrow I felt when he was killed a couple months later."

Van Alst, who now chairs the accounting department, joined thousands of her peers as they crowded into the gym to hear Kennedy speak.

"I was so young and uninformed, I'm surprised I even thought to go," she said. "I remember being extremely saddened by the assassination of [President John F. Kennedy] on my 15th birthday.  That, I'm sure, had something to do with my going to see his brother."

A Day That Changed History

It was only a few minutes after Kennedy had concluded his appearance on campus that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot outside a hotel room in Memphis, Tenn. The news of his death sent shockwaves through America, causing many urban areas to explode with frighteningly violent riots and protests.

Conn said Kennedy learned about King's death as he was preparing to leave by plane from the Muncie airport en route to Indianapolis for another speech. Kennedy often is credited with helping contain violence in the state capital with the uplifting and spontaneous speech he delivered there despite concerns for his safety.

When, on June 5, Kennedy himself fell victim to an assassin's bullet, the nation experienced a loss that went beyond the death of a promising political leader, Conn said.

"It wasn't just Kennedy's life that was lost that day, but something greater was taken from the American people," he continued. "It was the loss of an ideal, a dream, the notion that we could have this really good man come forward, wanting to address our country's needs, and then we'd have someone wanting to destroy him."

Van Alst also was stunned at the news of the assassinations of King and Kennedy, pivotal moments in one of the most historic years of the 20th century.

"I was at my grandfather's house in June when he told me that Robert Kennedy had been shot. I was in disbelief, as was everyone else, whether Democrat or Republican.  It seemed too horrible to be true. Even though, tragically, it was not." 

Forty Years Later

As the 40th anniversary of Kennedy's visit to Ball State approached, Conn found himself recounting his own experiences that fateful day for several upcoming publications.

He'll be featured in "The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America," a book slated for May release by New York-based author Thurston Clarke. He also appears in "Robert F. Kennedy and the 1968 Indiana Primary," a recently published book by Indiana-based author Ray Boomhower, and in the upcoming documentary "A Ripple of Hope" from Anderson University's Covenant Productions.

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