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THOMAS FARRAGHER

A single moment, 50 years ago, that changed the course of a life

“I was in my glory,’’ Paul Sheehan said of his early days with Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. “I loved it. I had no idea what I was doing.’’
“I was in my glory,’’ Paul Sheehan said of his early days with Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. “I loved it. I had no idea what I was doing.’’John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

BARNSTABLE — It was a phone call that would forever alter the course of his life, make him an eyewitness to mournful history, and teach him something about death that even his young career as a funeral director could not.

It came the day after Robert F. Kennedy announced his anti-war insurgent candidacy for president in March of 1968. There was a St. Patrick’s Day parade in South Boston. A friend was on the phone with a question — a question that this weekend is precisely a half-century old.

“Bobby’s going to be marching in the parade, and we want some people to walk with him,’’ said Fred Fitzgerald, a Kennedy first cousin. “Are you up for it?”

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Paul Sheehan, the son of a Boston cop and then, like Fitzgerald, a Boston funeral director, did not hesitate.

“Sure,’’ Sheehan replied. “Why not?’’

“So we decided we were going to meet in front of this gin mill near a church in South Boston, right by the Gillette factory,’’ Sheehan recalled the other day, sitting in the living room of his home here. “And he introduced me to Senator Kennedy who says to me: ‘And who do we have here?’ ”

Who do we have here?

We have Paul Sheehan, now 81, the fourth of five children of parents who raised their kids in St. Theresa’s Parish in West Roxbury. After he got out of high school in 1954, he spent one year at Stonehill College, abandoning Easton for mortuary college and a career that approached a seminal intersection during Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in one of the most tumultuous years in US history.

“I enjoyed directing the funerals and arranging funerals,’’ Sheehan said. “I enjoyed trying to help people through that period in their lives. You understand that life is unfair. You understand that life is a crap shoot.’’

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It was, as it turned out, critical training for his entry into politics as an aide and advance man that later would lead to Jimmy Carter’s and Bill Clinton’s White House, with stops along the way alongside Democratic presidential hopefuls George McGovern and Edward M. Kennedy.

But first, there was “Bobby,’’ the martyred president’s brother who walked up to Sheehan after that parade in Southie 50 years ago — a parade attended by what the Globe estimated to be a crowd of 350,000 — and stuck out his hand.

“That was great,’’ Kennedy told Sheehan. “You’re a big help. Why don’t you come with me?’’

Presently, Sheehan was on a plane to Indianapolis, where he slept on a farmer’s couch, was dispatched to Frankfort, Ind., in Clinton County, and set up shop in an old dentist office, where the furniture was a card table and a folding chair.

A yellowed newspaper clipping shows him sitting there, himself a Kennedy lookalike, beneath a large campaign poster for the young man who wanted to be president.

“I was in my glory,’’ he told me. “I loved it. I had no idea what I was doing.’’

Sheehan still has a cardboard tally sheet from that, his first Election Night. When the Indiana primary polls closed, Kennedy led the field with 42 percent of the vote. And then it was on to California, where Sheehan met Don Dowd, a longtime aide and confidante of the Kennedy family.

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“Don comes out and says, ‘I’ve got you staying at the Ambassador Hotel,’ ” Sheehan recalled. “And I said, ‘Great.’ And he said, ‘You’ve got to share it with two other guys. And they don’t know it yet.’ ”

What followed is written in the history books and captured in smaller, intimate vignettes that are enshrined in the memory of Paul Sheehan who saw it all up close.

When Ken Curtis, who in 1967 became Maine’s 68th governor, arrived at the airport in California, Sheehan picked him up and mistook him for an aide, handed him a map, and asked him to play navigator. Curtis loved it, and the two become longtime friends.

When 5,000 showed up at the Strawberry Festival grounds in Garden Grove just days before the California primary, political reporters recorded RFK’s mocking reference to Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s “politics of joy and happiness.’’

“We can’t talk about joy and happiness in politics until they clean up the situation in Vietnam,’’ Kennedy told the crowd that day.

Sheehan recalls something else. The throng of supporters who mobbed the senator’s car, threatening to maroon it on the fairground’s track.

“The car was hung up and I said, ‘If 40 of you would get off the goddamned cah we can get it out of here,’ ” Sheehan said, emphasizing the iconic Boston pronunciation of that word. “Bobby turns around and says: ‘I know that accent!’ They all jump off the car. And Bobby says: ‘That’s leadership, Paul!’ ”

Two days later, Sheehan was in a room at the Ambassador Hotel on a floor surrounded by Kennedy intimates. Marquee journalists were there and political wise men, too.

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Kennedy, having won the critical California primary with 46 percent of the vote, famously stood on the Ambassador Hotel’s stage that night and set his sights on Chicago and the Democratic National Convention.

As he walked off the stage and approached the hotel’s kitchen, an assassin lay in wait. Paul Sheehan was 25 feet away.

Next to him stood CBS newsman Roger Mudd, who interviewed Kennedy in the final minutes of his life.

“Bobby’s in front of me,’’ Sheehan said. “The hand goes out. The gun goes off. And Bobby goes down. Bang! Bang! Bang! And I’m standing there. And Mrs. Kennedy and Roger Mudd are pushing back. And I’m going, ‘God, no. God, no. Please, God, no.’ ”

Sheehan still has his parking ticket from the garage of the Ambassador Hotel from the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel kitchen. Sheehan was just 25 feet away.
Sheehan still has his parking ticket from the garage of the Ambassador Hotel from the day Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in the hotel kitchen. Sheehan was just 25 feet away.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The tumult that ensued is forever preserved on famous TV footage. The tackled assassin. Kennedy being cradled by a white-coated busboy. The hopeless vigil at the hospital, where Sheehan ran into Don Dowd again.

“Don comes out and he looks like he’s just been hit by a train,’’ Sheehan said. “He put a hand on my shoulder and I said, ‘How’s he doing?’ And he said, ‘It’s over.’ ”

Sheehan would go on to serve two presidents. He traveled the world. He met two popes. But he can never erase the events at the Ambassador Hotel that June night 50 spring seasons ago.

“Being a funeral director gives you the greatest appreciation for life,’’ said Sheehan, who held a funeral-directing license for 30 years but never really left politics after meeting Bobby. “And this hit me as a horrible waste of a life. A horrible waste of a husband and a father. I guess it made me a little more hardened. I’m a little less liberal than I was that night. I’m a little less accepting than I was that night.

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“Cynical? No. Disillusioned? Perhaps. Disappointed? Absolutely.”

The walls of Sheehan’s home here carry faded-and-cherished mementoes of his life in politics.

There’s a framed thank-you note from President Jimmy Carter. And one from his vice president, Walter Mondale. The program from Robert Kennedy’s funeral Mass, which Sheehan attended on June 8, 1968, in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is there.

Sheehan has many faded-and-cherished mementoes of his life in politics.
Sheehan has many faded-and-cherished mementoes of his life in politics.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

And so is this: a black-and-white photo of a contemplative Robert Kennedy atop a slag heap in West Virginia.

Sheehan remembers handing it to Senator Edward Kennedy several years later while the two men were seated in the back seat of a car. After a long and stoic silence, he inscribed these words on it: “To Paul, who helped in 1968 make gentle the garish sun.’’

The words are inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.’’

And by Robert Kennedy himself, who used them to memorialize his slain brother during RFK’s unforgettable address to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

“When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.’’

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.