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Paul Schrade, Who Was Wounded During RFK Assassination, Has Died At 97

An elderly man with light-toned skin and white hair gestures in front of a mural of Cesar Chavez, Robert F. Kennedy and farmworkers
Former Robert Kennedy aide Paul Schrade, photographed in 2011, has died at the age of 97.
(Mark J. Terrill
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Paul Schrade has died at the age of 97.

Schrade was walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel on the night of the 1968 California primary when he suddenly felt like he was being electrocuted.

He'd been shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan, who then fired at Robert F. Kennedy, killing the presidential hopeful moments after Kennedy celebrated his California primary win.

Schrade's death was confirmed by his neighbor Alejandro Alvarenga. We will share more details as they become available.

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In June 2018 — 50 years after the assassination — our newsroom talked to Schrade about his life in the decades since as California voters went to the polls in that primary.

In a piece for KPCC's Take Two, Jon Kalish interviewed the then 93-year-old at his Hollywood Hills home. Here's are excerpts from that interview:

It was 1968 in Delano, California, Bob Kennedy was visiting Cesar Chavez, when Schrade first urged Kennedy to run for president. He traveled on a small plane with a couple of his guys and just pounded him that he had to run. Had to run. Had to run. Well, he didn't say he was going to run, but he asked a lot of questions about California politics.

This was on a Sunday. On that Friday, Kennedy announced that he was a candidate for president.

Schrade immediately endorsed Kennedy and was promptly called on the carpet by his boss Walter Reuther, who was then head of the United Auto Workers Union. Reuther did not support Robert Kennedy politically.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: During the presidential primary campaign in California, you worked tirelessly on Kennedy's behalf when voters went to the polls on June 4. What was it like to witness that the polls had closed early in East L.A. and in Watts?

Schrade: This was a really serious problem because this is where we expected a big vote. Those polls had closed early because 100% of the people in those districts voted, which had never happened before. You know, it just showed the kind of spirit that there was from Latinos and Black Americans.
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Q: During his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy made a point of thanking his labor supporters, specifically giving appreciation to you. The last words he spoke before a public audience were during this speech, where he said "my thanks to all of you, and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there." Do you remember how you felt listening to him give that victory speech?

I was elated and very happy about his victory because first of all, I had been part of it. But it was also happiness over the fact that I had done what I thought I had to do despite the opposition of Walter Reuther, my mentor, and the President of the union, who opposed what I was doing.

Q: After the speech, you accompanied Kennedy on his fateful walk into the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel en route to a meeting with reporters. Tell me more about that.

The television lights went on and sort of blinded me, and I felt a shock. I was shaking violently and I didn't know it, but I was shot in the head. I didn't know that. At that particular moment, I thought I was being electrocuted.

Q: The bullet didn't pass through your skull, and as a result, you didn't suffer any permanent physical damage. What effects did you experience after the shooting?

I survived it, but emotionally I didn't. I was in really bad shape for a long time and depressed, but also very angry about losing Bob. And a lot of my staff people said, you know, you're not doing your work. I was defeated for office a couple of years later. I took a job in an aerospace factory with an active U.A.W. local just to get to a quiet place. They downgraded me to a stockroom job. I needed to work, and I just wanted to get away from everything and that's one way to do it — in a dull job. I just felt that was the proper place for me for a long time.

A few years later, in the mid-1970s, New York Congressman Allard Lowenstein contacted Schrade and convinced him that the police investigation of RFK's assassination was deeply flawed. Schrade then became active in legal efforts to reopen the case.

A small fraternity of independent investigators, journalists and authors have spent decades looking into the possibility that Sirhan Sirhan was not Kennedy's soul assassin. The skeptics include RFK's son, Robert Kennedy Jr.

Bill Kleber is the co-author of the book, Shadow Play.

"Paul Schrade is our father in all this. I get emails from him almost every other day saying, hey, did you look at this?" said Kleber. "The bullet striations on this thing don't really match up. And we go back into looking at the bullet striations and did they really match and all this stuff? And this is what he's thinking about all the time. He's a fighter."

In 2016, a half-century after Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down, Paul Schrade testified in support of Sirhan's parole as he continued to question the official account of the killing. He insisted that the act was one that Robert Kennedy would support.

Although Schrade and others acknowledged that Sirhan fired a gun that night, they believe a second gunman killed Kennedy.

Q: You said that the first bullet Sirhan fired was the one that hit you, and yet you still forgive him. Why?

Schrade: Well, that's what the police say, but I was an innocent bystander. If he was trying to shoot Robert Kennedy and shot me, that doesn't mean he had any animosity or any feelings about me at all, so I feel free to forgive him for shooting me.

In the many years since Kennedy was assassinated, Paul Schrade has devoted himself to another mission to memorialize Kennedy in a meaningful way. In 1987 he got involved in the long protracted struggle to demolish the Ambassador Hotel and build a complex of public schools that bears Kennedy's name.

Judy Baca, an artist who was active in the campaign, said Schrade was a tireless advocate for building the schools.

"Paul was stubbornly refusing to give up hope on the idea that this could become a place that could remember Bobby Kennedy in the appropriate way," said Baca. "Paul felt, as did the Kennedy family, that what was most important to preserve was not that particular, terribly ghoulish moment in which Kennedy was shot."

What trade and other advocates of the school construction wanted to preserve was Kennedy's dedication to social and economic justice. Baca was commissioned to create two murals in the school's library honoring Kennedy. That library, which was built on the footprint of the ballroom where Kennedy gave his last speech is named in Paul Schrade's honor. Baca remembers showing Schrade the murals just as they were completed.

Baca said, "Walking him through that space that had been such a terrible moment for him, and asking him, is it transformed? Did we do it? And with tears in his eyes, he said, you did, this is what we dreamed of."

What questions do you have about Southern California?