Juan Romero, busboy who aided wounded Robert Kennedy, dies

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Juan Romero, a hotel busboy who came to the aid of Robert F. Kennedy after the New York senator was shot in Los Angeles, has died. He was 68.

Longtime family friend Rigo Chacon said Thursday that Romero had died at a Modesto, California, hospital on Monday, following a heart attack.

Romero was a teenager in June 1968 when Kennedy was shot in the head while walking through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary.

Romero held the mortally wounded Kennedy, struggling to keep the senator's head from hitting the floor. He placed Rosary beads in Kennedy's hand and reassured the senator everything would be all right.

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Juan Romero, busboy who aided wounded Robert Kennedy
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Juan Romero, busboy who aided wounded Robert Kennedy
This photo provided by STORYCORPS shows Juan Romero holding a Los Angeles Times photograph that shows Romero with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after Kennedy was shot. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, that Romero died Monday in Modesto, California, at age 68. Romero was a busboy in June 1968 when Kennedy walked through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary and an assassin shot him in the head. He held the mortally wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator's bleeding head from hitting the floor. (Jud Esty-Kendall/STORYCORPS via AP)
FILE - In this June 5, 1968 file photo, Hotel busboy Juan Romero, right, comes to the aid of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, that Romero died Monday in Modesto, California, at age 68. Romero was a teenage busboy in June 1968 when Kennedy walked through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary and an assassin shot him in the head. He held the mortally wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator's bleeding head from hitting the floor. (Boris Yaro/Los Angeles Times via AP)
ARLINGTON CEMETERY, VIRGINIA��Juan Romero and his daughter Elda Romero visit the grave site of Robert F. Kennedy for the first time in since the 1968 assassination. Juan Romero was the busboy at the site who held Kennedy after he was shot in Los Angeles. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
FILE - In this June 5, 1968 file photo, Hotel busboy Juan Romero, right, comes to the aid of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, that Romero died Monday in Modesto, California, at age 68. Romero was a teenage busboy in June 1968 when Kennedy walked through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary and an assassin shot him in the head. He held the mortally wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator's bleeding head from hitting the floor. (Richard Drew/Pasadena Star News via AP)
SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 05: Juan Romero, of San Jose, at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in downtown San Jose, Thursday June 5, 2008. In June 1968 Romero was a high school student, working the night shift job as a Bus Boy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He held and comforted Democratic Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy as he lay dying from a gunshot wound. Romero, a Mexican immigrant who grew up in East Los Angeles said, that at the time in his pocket he carried a rosary gifted to him by his mother, which he pulled out placed it in Kennedy's hand and prayed in Spanish. The Los Angeles Times reported that Juan Romero died Monday, October 1, 2018 in Modesto at age 68. (Maria J. Avila/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
1968 CALIFORNIA PRIMARY: ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY -- Pictured: Busboy Juan Romero who assisted Senator Robert F. Kennedy after Kennedy was fatally shot giving his statement on June 5, 1968 during his Presidential Campaign at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, CA -- Photo by: Frank Carroll/NBC NewsWire
FILE - In this June 5, 1968 file photo, Hotel busboy Juan Romero, right, comes to the aid of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, as he lies on the floor of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles moments after he was shot. The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, that Romero died Monday in Modesto, California, at age 68. Romero was a teenage busboy in June 1968 when Kennedy walked through the Ambassador Hotel kitchen after his victory in the California presidential primary and an assassin shot him in the head. He held the mortally wounded Kennedy as he lay on the ground, struggling to keep the senator's bleeding head from hitting the floor. (Richard Drew/Pasadena Star News via AP)
1968 CALIFORNIA PRIMARY: ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY -- Pictured: Busboy Juan Romero who assisted Senator Robert F. Kennedy after Kennedy was fatally shot giving his statement on June 5, 1968 during his Presidential Campaign at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, CA -- Photo by: Frank Carroll/NBC NewsWire
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25: (L-R) Laura Michalchyshyn, Juan Romero and Dawn Porter attend a screening of 'Bobby Kennedy For President' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 25, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - JUNE 05: Senator Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel after being shot by a young Jordanian Sirhan Sirhan. The senator died later, June 6, 1968. Busboy Juan Romero is among those aiding Kennedy. (Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON CEMETERY, VIRGINIA��Juan Romero becomes emotional after visiting the grave site of Robert F. Kennedy for the first time in since the 1968 assassination. Juan Romero was the busboy at the site who held Kennedy after he was shot in Los Angeles. On the hill above the Kennedy family grave sites is the Curtis�Lee Mansion (home of Robert E. Lee) (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
(Original Caption) Juan Romero, 17, the busboy who tried to aid mortally wounded Senator Robert F. Kennedy, holds crucifixes sent to him to replace the Rosary which he gave to the Senator. Despite the kindness of some people, Juan remains troubled by the jolting experience of the assassination, and he wonders how some people can be so good, while others do such things as he witnessed.
CALIFORNIA, UNITED STATES - JUNE 05: Busboy Juan Romero aiding Senator Robert F. Kennedy who is laying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel moments after being fatally shot by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. (Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JUNE 01: Juan Romero of San Jose, was a 17-year-old busboy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated there June 5, 1968. Here he is pictured on Jun 1, 1998 in San Jose, California when he worked for an asphalt paving company. The Los Angeles Times reported that Juan Romero died Monday, October 1, 2018 in Modesto at age 68. (L.G. Francis/Digital First Media/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
1968 CALIFORNIA PRIMARY: ASSASSINATION OF ROBERT F. KENNEDY -- Pictured: Busboy Juan Romero who assisted Senator Robert F. Kennedy after Kennedy was fatally shot giving his statement on June 5, 1968 during his Presidential Campaign at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, CA -- Photo by: Frank Carroll/NBC NewsWire
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 25: Juan Romero attends a screening of 'Bobby Kennedy For President' during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theatre on April 25, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
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The moment, captured on film, became an iconic image that haunted Romero for most of his life because Kennedy had stopped to shake his hand moments before he was shot.

For many years, Romero blamed himself for Kennedy's death — wondering if he could have done something to prevent the shooting or if Kennedy might have survived if he had not stopped to shake his hand.

Eventually Romero overcame his guilt, thanks in part to the support of Kennedy fans who told him that he was an example of the type of people Kennedy sought to help in making racial equality and civil rights a cornerstone of his life's work.

Earlier this year, Romero told The Associated Press in a rare interview that Kennedy inspired his lifelong commitment to racial equality.

"I still have the fire burning inside of me," Romero said while publicizing the NetFlix documentary "Bobby Kennedy for President."

Born in the small town of Mazatan in the Mexican state of Sonora, Romero moved to Baja California until his family received permission to bring him to the U.S. as a 10-year-old.

The family lived in blue-collar East Los Angeles and he attended Roosevelt High School the year that Chicano students started organizing walkouts to protest discrimination against Mexican-American students.

Romero feared he would face trouble at home if he took part in the protests.

He got a job at the Ambassador Hotel as a dishwasher and later a busboy. He met Kennedy the day before the California primary, when the senator and his aides ordered room service.

Romero was on duty and came into the room with a group of other busboys. He saw Kennedy toward the back — one hand holding a curtain and the other gripping a phone. Kennedy put down the phone and waved Romero to come forward.

"All I remember was that I kept staring at him with my mouth open," Romero said. Kennedy grabbed Romero's hand with both hands and said, "thank you." For a moment, there was silence.

"I will never forget the handshake and the look ... looking right at you with those piercing eyes that said, 'I'm one of you. We're good,'" Romero said. "He wasn't looking at my skin, he wasn't looking at my age ... he was looking at me as an American."

Voters went to the polls the next day, and that night Kennedy thanked supporters in the hotel's Embassy Room before leaving through the kitchen, where the gunman opened fire.

News photographers captured images that would be seen all over the world.

"Is everybody OK?" Kennedy asked.

Yes, Romero said.

"Everything will be OK," Kennedy said before losing consciousness.

Kennedy's wife Ethel — at the time pregnant with their 11th child — ran to her injured husband and pushed Romero away.

Romero turned and saw a group of men punching the gunman.

"I felt my hand making a fist to join in," Romero said. "Then I thought, what's the point?"

Kennedy was pronounced dead at a hospital hours later at age 42.

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