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Indiana - May 1968 on trip through many towns that day

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50 years on, locals remember RFK's visit to Southern Indiana | News | newsandtribune.com

50 years on, locals remember RFK's visit to Southern Indiana


Right to Left: Sisters Marilyn Mattingly and Ellen Botkins, and their sister-in-law Sharon Wilder, recall their memories of planning for Robert F. Kennedy's visit to Jeffersonville in 1968. Mattingly was co-chair for the Clark County effort to get Kennedy elected. 

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Marilyn Mattingly never wanted to "get into politics."

But in early 1968, she had one goal in mind that put her into the midst of one of the most hotly contested presidential primaries.


"I just wanted to get Bobby Kennedy elected president," Mattingly said.

Little did she know that her drive to put another Kennedy in the White House would put her in a convertible riding from New Albany to the Youngstown Shopping Center in Jeffersonville, sitting right next to Kennedy himself.

"It was just like a dream come true. It really was."

Mattingly was the co-chairperson for the Clark County effort to get Kennedy on the Democratic ticket for president. The campaign to win Indiana was a tough one, with Kennedy having little support from the Democratic establishment that preferred Indiana Gov. Roger Branigan — the favorite son candidate who started as a surrogate for then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The belief was if Kennedy could win Indiana in the primary, he could win the country in the general election.


Pictures of Robert F. Kennedy's visit to New Albany and Jeffersonville on April 24, 1968 are spread across a table after being pulled from a photo album. 

So it only made sense that Kennedy visited Floyd and Clark counties on April 24, image.png1968. Mattingly remembers standing on a makeshift stage next to Kennedy and other campaign volunteers in Jeffersonville. And while she doesn't remember feeling unsafe, she recalls that there was little to no security for Kennedy's visit, a result of behind-the-scenes political gamesmanship by those who refused to let Kennedy win Indiana.

Kennedy won anyway, a testament to the grassroots efforts Mattingly was a part of. But 41 days later, it all came to a halt when Kennedy, like his brother John before him, was assassinated. Mattingly remembers getting the call from her sister, Ellen Botkins: "Bobby's been shot."

"It was just devastation," Mattingly said. "I mean, I knew that I would probably never campaign like that again. ... It was just over for me."


As the sole photographer for the New Albany-based Tribune newspaper, Don Beck was tasked with photographing Kennedy's 1968 visits. In his 46-year career, he photographed his fair share of exciting events and national figures, including Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But a Kennedy?

"It was a big deal at the time because he was such a big figure, and of course ... it was after JFK was killed in Texas, so he was really carrying on the family name and well-recognized through his family," Beck, who was 31 at the time, said.


Don Beck smiles as he pulls one of the many film cameras from his collection case in the basement of his home. A former photographer for the New Albany Tribune for 46 years, Beck was on scene for coverage when Robert F. Kennedy visited New Albany in 1968. 

He remembers Kennedy at Pearl and Market streets in New Albany on an outdoor stage, surrounded by supporters. Beck described it as a scene out of Harvest Homecoming.

He likely shot two to three rolls worth of film that day. Afterward, he would have headed back to the newsroom's dark room to develop the film and get it ready for print. Some of his work has been left behind in library archives and his own personal collection that decorates the walls of his basement.

"Over my years I think I've taken photos of probably at least six presidents, and a lot of some of the national people," he said. "But it was exciting because we don't get that many people coming through here."


Robert F. Kennedy visited Jeffersonville and New Albany in 1968 while campaigning for President of the United States. His last visit to New Albany came on May 5, two days before he narrowly won the Democratic primary. Photo courtesy of Marcy Wisman


Philip Hendershot was 8 years old when Kennedy came to town. He can't remember if he shook the presidential hopeful's hand on April 24 or during a second visit on May 5, two days before the primary election. But the date hardly matters for him.


A portrait of Robert F. Kennedy, right, is displayed beside Presidents Nixon and Truman in the home of former Tribune photographer, Don Beck. 

"What I remember is that I was with my father and this was like a grown-up event that he took me to, and he allowed me to actually walk out into the street and shake Kennedy's hand from a moving convertible," Hendershot recalled.

"And I was never allowed to be in the street! So it was a big thing for a kid to be able to go out and do that."

Now 58 years old, the thing that impresses Hendershot most is how aware he and his young peers were at the time. He remembers feeling the tension over the fight for Civil Rights and the country's involvement in Vietnam.

"I can remember my friends and I playing our Wiffle ball games and stuff, we would talk about, you know, if Kennedy gets to be president maybe the war would stop. In a simplistic way, we were engaged."

After doing some research, Hendershot said it's clear that Indiana played a big role in that year's primary, and for Kennedy.

When Kennedy was killed, he remembers his parents being crushed and a haunting sense of "what might have been." As a child, having met Kennedy just weeks before, the loss struck him, too.

"... From the mind of an 8-year-old, it's kind of hard to imagine that someone can be there one moment alive and shaking your hand, and then they're gone," he said. "It really was ... it was tough."

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