Juan Romero, RFK’s final handshake, dead

It was only recently that Juan Romero finally began to let go of the memories from a night in June 1968.

It was only recently that he began to celebrate his birthday again, because it fell on the same month as the time he got to see Robert F. Kennedy close up.

This night.

Juan Romero kneeling next to Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968. Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

Kennedy had stopped for a moment in the kitchen of Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel to shake Romero’s hand, long enough for Sirhan Sirhan to get a good shot.

Romero was only 17 when he cradled Robert F. Kennedy in his dying moments and heard his last words, “is everyone OK?”.

He was only 68 when he died on Monday, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The Times’ Steve Lopez, who interviewed Romero many times over the years, says the busboy met Kennedy the night before when the presidential candidate ordered room service.

“I remember walking out of that room … feeling 10 feet tall, feeling like an American,” said Romero, who had moved to Los Angeles from Mexico seven years earlier. He became an Ambassador busboy on the advice of his strict stepfather, who worked at the hotel and wanted Romero to be sure to stay out of trouble on the streets of East Los Angeles.

The next night, after Kennedy won California’s Democratic primary and made a victory speech, he retreated through the kitchen pantry area and Romero pushed through the crowd to congratulate him. He said that just as he shook Kennedy’s hand, the shots were fired. Romero thought the pops were from firecrackers and that Kennedy had fallen in fright, but Romero then saw blood spilling onto his own hand and realized what had happened as Sirhan Sirhan, the man with the gun, was apprehended. Romero said he was carrying rosary beads in his pocket and stuffed them into Kennedy’s hands.

He got his share of hate mail, he told StoryCorps just a few months ago.

“One of them even went as far as to say that ‘If he hadn’t stopped to shake your hand, the senator would have been alive,’ so I should be ashamed of myself for being so selfish,” he said.

In 2010, he bought a suit for the first time so that he could visit Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

“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.

“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. I felt important. I felt American. And I felt good.”

In recent years, Romero noted the country has moved farther from Kennedy’s insistence that love and compassion presented a path for Americans.

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