Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 visit to Idaho State University came
in the midst of protests against the war in Vietnam at ISU
Image Credit: ISU Photographic Services

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Robert F. Kennedy Remembered

'68 visit showed that ISU wasn't immune to tumult of the times

In 1968, Idaho State University President William E. "Bud" Davis presided over a volatile campus. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Students staged sit-ins, peace marches and demonstrations and boycotted classes to protest American military involvement in Southeast Asia.

I had been at ISU less than a year, hired as sports information director by Dubby Holt right out of a three-year stint in the U.S. Army. I knew how fortunate I was that my military experience did not include a tour in Vietnam and planned to vote in the 1968 presidential election for someone who might end that war.

I was one of many who were elated when Robert F. Kennedy, then a Democratic senator from New York, announced his presidential candidacy on a platform of negotiated peace in Vietnam. I was even happier when Kennedy announced plans to speak at ISU on March 26.

If I was happy, Mike King was ecstatic. He was just one week into his term as ASISU president. (He currently is associate athletics director/finance at Brigham Young University.) He and vice president Les Purce, now president of The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash., joined Bannock County Democratic Chairman Chick Bilyeu, Davis and others at the airport to transport Kennedy to campus.

The largest crowd I ever saw in Reed Gym came to hear Kennedy speak. It included an estimated 6,000 students, faculty, staff and community members.

Kennedy appeared tired, at least to me, during his prepared remarks. And why not? He was in the midst of the candidate's usually hectic schedule and had three speeches scheduled in Utah the next day. But he seemed to perk up during the question-and-answer session that followed.

I still remember one exchange that drew comment in subsequent accounts of his appearance here. Someone asked why college students were being drafted. Kennedy responded that no young person should be more exempt from military service than any other. Speaking in the vocabulary of the times, he cited statistics showing that 10 percent of Americans were Negroes but 20 percent of Americans killed in action in Vietnam were Negroes.

I left the gym feeling very strongly that Kennedy should be elected president.

The next morning, King and Purce drove an expansive Kennedy back to the airport. "He spoke of his dreams and ideals and what he hoped to accomplish," King recalled not long ago. "It was one of my more memorable days."

In 1968, Pocatello had no all-night radio and since I was accustomed to going to sleep with the radio on, mine was usually tuned to KNBR in San Francisco. At 12:15 a.m. on June 5, I was jolted awake by a shouted news report live from Los Angeles. Someone had shot Bobby Kennedy. He died the next day, and with him seemed to die any chance the U.S. might have had of getting out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Glenn Alford
For ISU Magazine