Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — Paul Schrade easily recites the details of the last day of his life before he was shot in the head alongside his friend, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He knows it all by heart, every step he took, every sight and sound as if it was yesterday.
In the 43 years Sunday since that transformative night when Schrade came close to losing his life, he has understood the details. But he is shadowed to this day by nagging questions: What really happened that night and who made it happen?
Schrade, at 86, tall, white haired and projecting the vitality of a much younger man, has given the second half of his life over to preserving Kennedy's legacy and trying to unravel the puzzle of his friend's assassination. He believes there was more than one gunman in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel when he and Kennedy and four others were shot. And he plans to publish his story about what he has learned. For now, he declines to say what that is.
He estimates he has spent a cumulative 10 years chasing clues and he's still at it.
"It's always on my mind," Schrade said. "It has to be. The family is not involved because they can't handle reliving the pain and suffering and they don't want to expose Ethel to it. But I always keep a member of the family informed if we're about to release anything."
But Schrade, who tries to live by the ideals Kennedy espoused, has a lot more to think about than the past.
After sinking into deep depression following the assassination, Schrade found a way to move on by achieving a dream which some thought could never happen, the creation of a complex of public schools dedicated to Kennedy's legacy on the Ambassador Hotel site.
"Talk about the school, not about me," he urged a reporter.
But the two are inevitably intertwined. The recently opened state-of-the-art school library bears a large sign: "Paul Schrade Library," and there is a plaque noting his "23 years of struggle to build the finest living memorial" to Kennedy.
The Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools opened last September. The complex of six schools where a student can go from kindergarten to high school graduation in one location was built at a cost of $578 million, the most expensive school in the nation. The campus includes a theater where the old Cocoanut Grove night club stood with Moroccan decor and the same palm leaf carpet pattern that was emblematic of the room where movie stars and presidents posed for pictures.
It is a reminder of how the hotel looked the early morning hours of June 5, 1968 when triumph turned to tragedy in seconds.
Schrade remembers the cheers of the crowd and the touch of Kennedy's hand as they mounted a platform before thousands of supporters who helped him win the California Democratic presidential primary.
"He gave me new recognition for everything I had done. He thanked me from the podium and he grabbed my hand. I was the only one he shook hands with on the platform ," Schrade said..
Schrade, then western regional director of the United Auto Workers Union, had been the labor chair of Kennedy's campaign and was at his side at many events including a meeting with farmworker leader Cesar Chavez in rural Delano. On the fateful night, he was waiting with Kennedy to see if he would win the pivotal primary.
"'He knew it was life or death politically that night," says Schrade. "And it became a death."
But first, he said, there was joy as the tide of votes turned and Kennedy's victory seemed assured.
"There was a wonderful spirit upstairs on the fifth floor of the Ambassador Hotel," he said. "I sat with Bob and Ethel. There came a point when the decision was made to go downstairs a little after midnight."
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