Jack McGrath and RFK
Special to MayorSam's Sister City
On Saturday, June 29, I will be attending my 50th high school reunion at the Beverly Garland Hotel in North Hollywood. I am excited, but wonder why see a bunch of old people like me, who I do not call, email, or have had anything to do with for decades. Maybe I want to see who has a hair piece,(male or female), who uses a walker, or who can't tell me why they are there. I am traveling from my new home in Ventura County, so it is a big deal. I travel back to the San Fernando Valley only for special events.
June has also been an important part of my life for the past almost half century, for another very personal reason. I was in the ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968, the year Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The LAPD kept all the people in the hotel there till 6 AM the next morning. It was a tragic event for all of America. That night is seared in my consciousness.
My involvement with the Robert Kennedy for President campaign was a bit of LA theater. At the time in 1968, I lived on Prairie St in a four bedroom home with three other students, who all attended school at San Fernando Valley State College. We were a lively bunch, and partook in that special green stuff called "weed", "MaryJane", "pot:, "marijuana" etc. About 9PM one night during the week, a very old friend from grammar school called me on the phone. I was semi looped, a bit loud, but having a fun night at my home at the college with a bunch of friends. My grammar school friend, Dick Drechsler, whose mother, started "Dollars for Democrats" told me he was that night with the big wig democrats at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Robert Kennedy was gong to make his first CA speech for President, at either UCLA or CA State Northridge. (then called San Fernando Valley State College). Dick said " For many reasons including the demographics of the campaign, the campaign wants to make the speech in Northridge at the state college. But we need the college to cancel all classes the day of the speech. We need you to call the college President tonight and get his commitment to close the campus for the special speech."
Now at that hour at my home, I was in a pretty good high, but had the sense to realize this was pretty big stuff. I knew who the president of the college was, but did not really know him on a first name basis. His name was Delmar T. Oviatt, acting president of the college. I told Dick I would try to reach Dr. Oviatt right away.
By this time, the party was in a full roar. Some there thought this was the final 30 seconds of a football game, and were cheering me on, as they took another hit on the joint. Due to the ingestion of the grass, I had no fear whatsoever. Oviatt's name was in the paper phone book, living in Northridge. The Kennedy delegation was waiting for this most important call. Was it going to be the Bruin or a Matador win? I dialed the rotary phone.
Ring Ring, "Hello" said the person on the other line
Jack- "Dr Oviatt, This is Jack McGrath, regional coordinator of the Robert Kennedy Presidential campaign(I had already given myself a title). "How are you tonight, sir?"
I gave him the backround on the decision between UCLA and SFVSC.
Jack- " So Dr. Oviatt, (I posed the question) is it SFVSC or UCLA for the possible next President of the United States? As the acting president, he was not fully in authority, nor had total confidence in his decision making, based on the weak inflection of his voice.
Jack-Sensing Dr. Oviatt's knees might be buckling I had to give him a shot between the eyes. Me, a 21 year old pot smoking poli- sci major to a guy who wore a bow tie all the time, at a somewhat,at the time, minor academic institution. But he made the decision.
Jack- "Dr. Oviatt, I do not need to remind you this is a big opportunity to shine, and put the college on the map. We will have more national and international press coverage than the college has ever had", I blerted out.
Dr. Oviatt- Well ok Mr. McGrath, (I had never heard this salutation before). I guess we will do it. Can you come into my office tomorrow morning at 8:00 AM to start discussing the details of Sen. Kennedy's visit to our campus? That was the formal beginning of my involvement in politics and government in Los Angeles.
Postscript- The Kennedy event at the college had well over 100,000 people in attendance. The college built a large stage for the Robert Kennedy speech at our college. We started a Students for Kennedy chapter at the campus, and all were devasted a couple of months later with Sen. Kennedy's assasination that June night at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. My association with the Kennedy campaign was just over two months. But I will never forget it.
Final Postscript- One of my roomates in the house in Northridge, was a friend named Richard Marin. A delightful roomate, fellow pot enjoyer. He in a few years became Cheech of "Cheech & Chong, the comedy duo. I think his big movie, "Up in Smoke", came from our many nights together at the home in Northridge.