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Photographer Kent Brown has seen a lot of history

When Robert F. Kennedy was running for president in 1968, Kent Brown of Medford followed him for months, taking photographs of the charismatic heir to the Camelot legend and getting to know him on a daily, conversational basis.

When, on June 5, multiple popping sounds rang out in the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel kitchen, minutes after RFK claimed victory in the California primary, Brown knew what they were — .22-caliber bullets — and feared the worst for the man he felt sure was destined for the presidency.

"I was terrified. I was 20 feet behind him, taking pictures as they moved toward the exit, where the limo was. It was popping sounds, several in a row. It seemed like eight. I shoot guns so I knew what it was," said Brown, who is still a freelance photographer. He will give a free presentation about his experiences at 7 p.m. today at Twin Creeks Retirement Center, 888 Twin Creeks Crossing, Central Point.

"The FBI and Secret Service converged on everyone and ran us out of there. It was chaos for five or 10 minutes, then someone came out and said Kennedy was shot."

The next day, as Kennedy lay dying of head wounds, the FBI and Secret Service confiscated Brown's photos and negatives of many months, saying they needed to examine the crowd for suspects. Brown never saw the pictures again.

They missed one roll of film shot only hours before the assassination, however, pictures of Kennedy speaking to employees at TRW, an aerospace firm in Los Angeles.

The pictures have never been printed or published and "I never told anyone," Brown said.

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Social Justice and Human Rights in Washington, D.C., heard about Brown's work from the FBI and recently called to see whether he had any more. He sent a CD of the shots to the center, who asked to add them to its collection. The photos are on display now.

The center granted Brown lifetime membership, as attested by a framed letter on his wall. The photos also will be displayed at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, he said.

At the time, Brown was 25, was a veteran of military service and had hair below his shoulders, he said. He was excited about Bobby Kennedy's vision to end the war and bring an era of peace, with smaller taxes for arms.

"I guess my favorite picture I took of him was when he's dramatically pushing his hands downward through the air and saying 'no more taxes'... He was such a dynamic photographic subject. He loved the camera, loved to have his pictures taken and would ask me, 'What did you get today? Let's see it.' "

Brown described RFK as humble and approachable, noting, "I liked him. He liked me, too. He would talk and talk to me and ask me about my work and life and family. He was somewhat shy and quiet in person, actually reserved, but out speaking in public, well, no one ever got people that excited, especially the younger people."

Although many historians say Kennedy could not have garnered enough delegates to win the nomination, Brown pooh-poohs the notion.

"I don't believe that; he was so popular. He would have swept it. So many young people loved him."

Looking at the historic campaign, which saw the unpopular President Lyndon Johnson step down and two antiwar Democrats (RFK and Sen. Eugene McCarthy) battle for primary victories so they could take on Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Brown said that one horrific moment in Los Angeles changed everything.

Mentioning likely conspiracy theories over the assassinations of both Kennedys, Brown said, "I think the death of Bobby Kennedy destroyed the hope of younger people. They just lost their hope. It was so devastating."

Brown took out a treasured necktie Kennedy gave him during the tumultuous California primary campaign. It's red, white and blue, patterned with American flags that show 13 stars in a circle.

"It was one of his own ties. He was joking that he didn't like my tie and wanted me to wear this one, so I did," Brown said.

Brown has crossed paths with history on more than one occasion. He was a Navy photographer early in the Vietnam War and in 1964 was present at the Gulf of Tonkin incident, within sight of the USS Maddox when it was torpedoed by the North Vietnamese, triggering the war. In 1962, he was on the sub tender Orion at the Bay of Pigs, when Cuban exiles tried and failed to retake the island nation from the Castro regime.

"My life is like that," Brown said. "I've done a lot of exciting things."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Professional photographer Kent Brown, of Medford, followed and documented Robert F. Kennedy for months during his presidential campaign in 1968. Mail Tribune / Julia Moore - Julia Moore