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."
After thanking supporters, Kennedy was diverted from his planned exit to move through the hotel pantry. Schrade remembers him shaking hands with two Hispanic employees of the hotel.
"He turned and then I got hit. I got the first shot," Schrade recalled. "I thought I was being electrocuted. I fell right behind Bob. ... I was in and out of consciousness and when I came to and the doctor arrived, I said, 'Take care of the senator.'"
He learned later that the mortally wounded Kennedy asked: "Is everyone all right? Is Paul all right?"
He did not know that Kennedy had been killed until the next day when UAW President Walter Reuther came to his bedside and told him.
"I just turned away," he said. "I was so angry. We should have realized it was going to happen again." In light of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy five years earlier, he thought there should have been more security.
Schrade underwent surgery and some fragments of the bullet remain in his skull.
"It took a long time for me to recover from this," he said. "People told me, 'You were so angry, so depressed you weren't on the job."
In fact, he lost his job, suffering defeat for re-election to his UAW post.
In 1971 he met and married political attorney Monica Weil, and the Yale educated Schrade, a native of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., turned in another direction. He joined the board of American Civil Liberties Union and began working with his wife to investigate the RFK assassination and convicted assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. He would become convinced there was a conspiracy.
"I know there was a second gunman based on the evidence," he said. "Sirhan couldn't have done it and didn't do it alone." He came to believe in a larger plot encompassing the assassination of President Kennedy. But he is not ready to discuss the details until his research is complete.
Meanwhile, he has moved on in his mission to carry on Kennedy's work.
He knew Kennedy was passionately committed to education for children from low income families. In 1987, Schrade proposed a school on the 23-acre Ambassador site that sits in a crowded immigrant neighborhood near downtown. The 3,700 students now enrolled are predominantly Hispanic and Korean. Those involved in athletics wear bright red sweatshirts emblazoned with the initials RFK.
Schrade visits the Los Angeles campus frequently to check up on things. Although the Ambassador buildings are gone, the Paul Schrade library, at the spot where the ballroom stood, retains the vaulted ceiling of the original room. Two enormous murals frame the room — one of Kennedy reaching down into a sea of hands, the other of Kennedy breaking bread with Chavez after his historic fast for farmworkers' rights. Students who were too young to know about Kennedy receive a lecture on orientation day explaining the murals and the school's heritage.
If they are lucky, the students may have the chance to meet Schrade, the living embodiment of a chapter in history.
Schrade points with pride to the "Inspiration Park" on the grounds where students can sit on benches and contemplate engraved words from Kennedy and other civic leaders. Near the entrance is a quote from Kennedy which could apply to Schrade's accomplishments.
"Few will have the greatness to bend history but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation."