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Newarkers reminisce about Robert F. Kennedy funeral train

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When a Dutch professor and artist showed up at a bowling alley in Elkton, Md., several years ago, some people thought he was a con man. But Rein Jelle Terpstra is far from it.

The teacher and student of photography and memory once again came to the area Oct. 23, where a full room at the Newark Country Club watched and listened in awe.

Newark and nearby Cecil County, Md., proved to be instrumental for finding photographs of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train, which passed through the area on June 8, 1968. A Democratic presidential hopeful that year, Kennedy was assassinated following a primary in California just three days earlier.

Terpstra, a professor of art and photography at Minerva Academy of Fine Arts in Groningen, Netherlands, drew a crowd — including Gov. John Carney, local historian Mike Dixon and more than a dozen others who had lined the tracks to bid farewell to the American icon on a mild summer day 51 years ago. The event, hosted by the Newark Historical Society, felt more like a homecoming than a lecture.

Terpstra had met or interviewed many of the people in the room during his fieldwork that brought him to the area in 2015. Soon after arriving in Cecil County, he met Mike Dixon. Dixon, who heads up the Historical Society of Cecil County, helped connect the artist to the community. And the rest is, well, history.

“Mike Dixon is the most valuable person,” said Terpstra.

Newark Historical Society President Margie Masino spearheaded last week’s event.

“It’s been a long, long road getting here,” she said. “It’s very gratifying to see so many people here.”

She acknowledged that Dixon was instrumental in the project, and introduced him as a speaker.

“When you get to the bowling alley, they’ll put you in touch with right people,” Dixon mused. “But it has been a truly successful project that has captured a moment in time.”

Carney sat next to Terpstra and other speakers in the front row, and his excitement for the event was palpable. While other state and local dignitaries were present, Carney was among a different group in room. He witnessed the funeral train in 1968 at age 12 in his home town of Claymont.

Carney thanked the Newark Historical Society for the great work the group does in preserving, honoring, educating and elevating history.

“It was about a year ago, almost to the day, that we met in my office to talk about the project he had been working on,” said Carney. “I was so excited to have been contacted about the project. I remember well watching the funeral train on TV, and then going down to the Claymont train station with my father. He probably brought my brother, but there were nine of us, so we all couldn’t go.”

The governor described a crowded scene, and his father had to bypass his normal driving route because people were lined up on the roads.

“As a 12-year-old, I remember the incredible impact Robert Kennedy’s death had on my family,” he said.

Carney wasn’t the only one who shared memories of his father in connection to the Kennedy funeral train. Terpstra, who was 8 years old in 1968, said his father was a Kennedy admirer and loved all things American. Hearing stories about the Kennedys inspired him to undertake this significant project, which included the publication of a book and several museum exhibits around the world.

“As a photographer and artist, I am very interested in the relationship between photography and memory,” he said.

While the world experienced the photographs from within the funeral train looking out through Look Magazine photographer Paul Fusco’s book “RFK Funeral Train,” Terpstra was interested in what all of the people in Fusco’s photographs were looking at.

Terpstra’s friends gave him the Fusco book, which he said he loved because the photos depict “a cross-section of American society in the 1960s.”

During the presentation, Terpstra showed pictures of people gathered at the Newark train station, which is now the site of the Newark History Museum. The image depicted people of all ages, including a Boy Scout troop with an American flag.

“I tried to find the people in the images that had cameras,” he said. “I knew field work was necessary. The United States is the best place to do research. People are excited and helpful.”

Michael Scott, a North East, Md., native who lives in California, flew in to speak at the event. His father was a civil rights activist during the 1960s. The Ku Klux Klan nearly killed their family by bombing their home in August 1968, just two months after the funeral train.

Scott remembers asking his mother if they could go see the train after hearing it was passing through Wilmington and headed to Washington, D.C.

“My father, much like Rein’s father, has a great affection for Robert Kennedy,” he said. “Robert Kennedy stood up for people who look like me as they traveled south. My father passed down his respect and affection to his young son.”

Scott recalled watching the train coming by that day and seeing Kennedy’s coffin.

“In this box was the hope of people who look like me, and the hope of people of Appalachia. It was the hope of people who were disenfranchised and marginalized. I will never forget that. It’s imprinted in my memory.”

Terpstra said that stories like this are the reason the project has been so meaningful to him. He said his travels were “a very important period” for him, and got a bit choked up when speaking about his father as well as the significance of the project.

“A lot of my journeys I did during election time,” he said. “So I know this country is passing through quite a heavy time, with a lot of division. I found out that what happened in 1968 was so much in the mind of Americans. People shared with me so many stories. It was a very pivotal year. ... I know that in Europe, just as 50 years ago, people are looking at the United States with fascination and horror. There are many similarities between 50 years ago and now. It made the project all the more urgent for me.”

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