October 5, 2018 – The busboy who rushed to Robert F. Kennedy’s side and cradled the New York senator moments after he was gunned down in 1968, died this week, it was reported on Thursday.
Juan Romero died Monday in Modesto, Calif. at 68 after suffering an apparent heart attack days earlier, his longtime friend and veteran San Jose TV anchor Rigo Chacon told the Los Angeles Times.
Over five decades ago, shortly after midnight June 5, 1968, Kennedy, who had just won the California presidential primary, addressed his supporters in the ballroom at LA’s Ambassador Hotel. Leaving the ballroom, Kennedy cut through the kitchen and Romero — then a 17-year-old busboy who’d met the senator the previous night delivering room service — jumped in to shake his hand.
That’s when 24-year-old gunman Sirhan Sirhan fired his .22 caliber revolver, hitting Kennedy three times, including once in the head.
The teen knelt down to cradle the mortally wounded Kennedy as he lay dying on the ground. He held the bleeding senator’s head, so it wouldn’t touch the kitchen floor and placed a rosary in his hand.
“I could see his lips moving, so I put my ear next to his lips and I heard him say, ‘Is everybody OK?’ I said, ‘Yes, everybody’s OK,’” Romero recalled to StoryCorps earlier this year.
“I could feel a steady stream of blood coming through my fingers,” Romero said. “I remember I had a rosary in my shirt pocket and I took it out, thinking that he would need it a lot more than me. I wrapped it around his right hand and then they wheeled him away.”
Kennedy was pronounced dead at a hospital hours later at age 42.
For decades Romero said he was haunted by the moment, which was captured in an eerie photo. He wondered if he could have done something to stop Kennedy from being shot and asked himself what would have happened if he hadn’t asked for a handshake.
“I felt like I needed to ask Kennedy to forgive me for not being able to stop those bullets from harming him,” he told StoryCorps.
Every year, Romero had the habit of leaving flowers at a monument to Kennedy in San Jose park to mark the assassination. Romero never forgot how, when he’d delivered room service to Kennedy, the presidential candidate had held both his hands and thanked him.
“I will never forget the handshake and the look … looking right at you with those piercing eyes that said, ’I’m one of you. We’re good,’” Romero said. “He wasn’t looking at my skin, he wasn’t looking at my age … he was looking at me as an American.”
In 2010, Romero traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to visit Kennedy’s grave — and bought a suit for the occasion.
“When I wore the suit and I stood in front of his grave, I felt a little bit like that first day that I met him,” he said. “I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good.”