• Kennedy ran, Medford man drove

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  • On the 40th anniversary of the assassination, fond memory of candidate JFK
    Like most in his generation, Medford resident Wally Watkins, 79, knows exactly what he was doing 40 years ago today.
    He and son Mike were hunting geese in the Klamath Basin that cold Nov. 22, 1963, when they decided to take a break.
    We drove into Bonanza to get some gas and something to eat, he recalled. The service station fellow there asked if we knew that President Kennedy had been shot.
    I tell you it hit me and my son real hard, he added. We went back, picked up our decoys and went home. I was totally despondent. I had this terrible feeling of what a tragedy.
    For Watkins, it was more than the fact that the president of the United States had been assassinated.
    — A little more than three years earlier Watkins, a businessman who owned a 1959 Lincoln convertible, had been asked to drive the grand marshal in the Pear Blossom parade. It was April 23, 1960.
    They had gotten Senator Kennedy to be the parade marshal, he said of the Massachusetts Democrat running for president in the primary that year. But it was also opening day of fishing season.
    Watkins, a staunch Democrat, was in a quandary. He and his son had planned a fishing trip to Klamath Lake that day.
    Politics won out over fishing. The two would put off fishing until the next day.
    I could always go fishing but I couldn't always take Senator Kennedy for a ride in my convertible, Watkins explained.
    The young senator, then 43, and Watkins, then in his mid-30s, chatted before the parade began.
    He was so interested in the fact I had decided not to go fishing so I could drive him, he said. He told me that if he got elected he would send me an invitation to his inaugural.
    Watkins told Kennedy that his father became a Democrat during the Great Depression. Watkins hails from pioneer Oregon stock.
    Kennedy wanted to know about his family and people in Southern Oregon, said Watkins, who later joined the candidate and his entourage for lunch at the Medford Hotel.
    John Kennedy had a tremendous personality, he said. He made you feel comfortable with him. He was very down to earth.
    Later, Kennedy sent Watkins a letter noting he felt bad the Oregonian had missed opening fishing day. As promised, he invited Watkins to his inaugural.
    I didn't go ' I wish I had, Watkins said.
    The fact that JFK was killed in a Lincoln convertible has always bothered Watkins.
    I guess that made it worse for me, he said.
    Fast forward to May 27, 1968, when another Kennedy visited the Rogue Valley. Like his older brother, Robert F. Kennedy was running for president when Watkins met him during the Oregon primary.
    That was down at the (Medford) City Hall, Watkins said. One of the people with him was a great big pro football player ' Rosie Grier.
    I told Robert Kennedy about the interaction I had from his brother, he added.
    Watkins and RFK talked for about 10 minutes.
    I was quite impressed with Robert, Watkins said. He had a real depth of knowledge about a lot of things.
    Robert Kennedy, 42, would win the Oregon primary, giving him momentum going into the California primary. He was fatally shot on June 5, 1968, in Los Angeles.
    Watkins, who has a bust of JFK which the Kennedy family sent to him, often wonders what the brothers would have accomplished had their lives not been cut short by assassins.
    They both had so much passion for life, he said.

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