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Column: Robert Kennedy's visit to city brought unprecedented excitement

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Dec. 9, 2006

WORTHINGTON — Some history writers are rating Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan the towering American political figures of the last half of the 20th century. Each of us may think what we will, of course. It is a surprise that in the judgment of some, Robert Kennedy, U.S. Attorney General and New York senator, overshadows his brother, the president, in historical measurements.

Lately there was a two-hour PBS broadcast given over to Robert Kennedy. An actor on C-SPAN read a Kennedy speech from a new Library of America volume of great American speeches. “Bobby,” the movie, is attracting wide attention.

One of these columns recently recalled the Turkey Day Sargent Shriver came to Worthington. It is fitting now to recall the Turkey Day Robert Kennedy came to town. That was a day the equal of which Worthington has never seen.

Saturday, Sept. 17, 1966.

It was 20 months since he was elected U.S. Senator from New York, 22 months before RFK was shot dead just, it seemed, as he was about to be nominated for President of the United States.

The thing remarkable and memorable is the crowd. “Eighty thousand people,” said Harry Sowles, longtime Turkey Day general chairman. Sowles never backed off that figure and — publicly, at least — he was never challenged. Even if Harry’s estimate was off by 100 percent, even if the crowd was 40,000, there was a throng beyond anything ever seen across all our region.

Kennedy spoke from a platform in front of Nobles County’s 1894, red brick courthouse. “This is,” he said, “a green and pleasant place.”

Pressing directly in front of the speakers’ stand and extending across the courthouse lawn, people stood in an elbow-to-elbow mass. They filled 10th Street from the old Ahlf Drug intersection at 10th and Fourth Avenue to the bank corner at 10th and Third Avenue, and they crowded in to fill the sidewalk beyond. There were people pressed against the front windows of Ben Franklin’s and F.W. Woolworth’s, on up the front steps of the Hotel Thompson.

Turkey Day parades of that era proceeded along 11th Street before making the turn to 10th Street at the Silverberg’s/Harper’s corner. Kennedy rode in a convertible with Sen. Walter Mondale until they made the 10th Street turn. Then he left his car and began walking, crossing back and forth, shaking hands along both curbs. Excitement became electric. People pushed ahead from every side.

Robert Kennedy arrived at Worthington Airport aboard a North Central Airline’s DC-3. There were cars parked along the shoulders of Highway 59. Cars were parked bumper to bumper along both sides of the road from the highway to the airport. Cars filled every available space around the airport buildings.

Kennedy and Mondale began shaking hands, moving along a fence that had been erected to hold people back from the runways. Among other things Worthington had not seen before were people — men, women, youths — with hand-lettered signs, some of them nailed to laths, some of them simply held high. Signs said, “Hi, Bobby,” “Welcome, Bobby,” “You’re the Greatest,” or simply, “Kennedy!”

The sun beamed. Nearly everyone was locked in place by the throng around them. There was enough chatter, murmur and shouting that conversation was barely possible.

In the mix that day were political celebrities, incumbents and candidates. One hundred reporters and/or photographers were signed in, representatives from nearly every newspaper in the region, plus CBS and ABC, Saturday Evening Post, Milwaukee Journal, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, New York Times.

Afterward, there were reports that the Worthington visit had a special significance to Sen. Kennedy and his advisers. Robert Kennedy had been out across America as a featured speaker only rarely. In the Kennedy camp there were questions regarding how RFK would handle himself, how he would be received, whether he would attract attention. Political observers wondered if Robert Kennedy could stir excitement as John Kennedy did.

In the next week, a call to the Daily Globe from Kennedy’s office was transferred to me. The caller wanted pictures the Globe had made on Saturday. There were questions about local reaction, questions about what people were saying.

I said, “We never saw a crowd like this.”

I was told, “We never did, either.”