Alex MacDonald says his friends have never completely believed one of his favorite dinner-party stories: At 18, he shook the hand of Robert F. Kennedy when the US senator marched with his brother Ted Kennedy in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in South Boston.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of the encounter, MacDonald, a lawyer raised in Dorchester, finally has proof.
Hoping to find a photograph of RFK marching in the parade — held the day after Kennedy announced his presidential bid and three months before his assassination — MacDonald e-mailed archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. A few days later, they replied with all of the museum’s images of the parade — and one included MacDonald’s brief brush with greatness.
“The moment really is hard to describe,” says MacDonald, who lives in Cambridge. “Shock, in the most positive of senses, and exhilaration.”
Laurie Austin, the audiovisual archivist at the JFK Museum, says she was surprised the greeting was captured.
“I’m pretty astounded,” Austin says. “It is really rare for us to be able to come up with a photo of an unscheduled chance encounter.”
The image was shot by Burton Berinsky, a photographer who was covering Kennedy’s presidential campaign for Time magazine. Although the picture only shows the back of MacDonald’s head, he recognizes the jacket with the fur-lined collar — it’d been a favorite — and his haircut. When Austin met MacDonald, she says the resemblance was clear.
“I took one look at him and realized that the person in the image had to be the same person because he still has the same hair,” she says, laughing. “He has the same hair 50 years later! Remarkable!
“It’s so satisfying as an archivist when your materials can connect with someone in that way,” Austin said. “That’s what reference archivists live for.”
MacDonald said the handshake with Kennedy lasted all of a few seconds.
“I looked up and, to my astonishment, 100 feet away from me was my then and current hero, Bobby Kennedy, walking straight towards me,” he says.
MacDonald, terrified by the notion of the draft, said he approached RFK and praised his opposition to the Vietnam War.
“For an 18-year-old kid from Dorchester who was about to start his quest for a different kind of life through a college education and, ultimately, a law school education, it was easy to see [Kennedy] as a champion,” he said. “And I did.”
Now, three photos from the parade are mounted on the living room wall of MacDonald’s 1822 home in West Cambridge. A plaque marks the date and location beneath them.
“There’s a resonance in this being the 50th anniversary,” he says. “It’s impossible to be the 18-year-old kid in that photograph looking into the eyes of your hero and not be mindful of the magical journey that transpired over the 50 years in between.”