Thursday, June 6, 2013



As I brushed away the sleep, I saw Dad at the foot of my bed. "He's dead Rick. Bobby didn't make it." 

The words rolled out softly like a requiem. It was June 6, 1968. Bobby Kennedy was dead and nothing would be quite the same again. Two decades and exactly one month to the day the requiem was for Dad, and once again my world would change.

Today Thursday, June 6, 2013 we observe the 45th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination.  Like any good Irish wake we celebrate his life not his death. 

Many remember Bobby quoting Jack Kennedy quoting George Bernard Shaw: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" 

It was the anthem of the 60's performed by one of the decades noblest voices. 

He was christened Robert Francis Kennedy, but to the citizens of the United States and even across the globe from 1960 to 1968, "Bobby" was all they needed to identify President Kennedy's feisty brother. And like Ike and Elvis the nickname would be used forever by those who loved him.

As Attorney General, Senator and Presidential candidate, Bobby was an apostle of social justice and a prophet of change.

It was Bobby who inspired me, and countless others, to enter public service careers. Over the years I have met Presidents, Nobel Laureates, and numerous other dignitaries but my memory of Bobby at a 1968 campaign rally in Grand Rapids is the one I treasure the most. 

That shock of hair tossing unruly in the wind, the toothy smile and those piercing but kind eyes connecting him on a visceral level through a crowd to each individual making you feel that he truly cared, remain fresh in my mind.

As his motorcade departed  my parents heard a nine year old boy yell, "Today Grand Rapids, tomorrow the world!"

Bobby laughed, flashed his smile connected his eyes with that boy and offered a thumbs up as he rode away. In two months he would win the vital California Primary but another assassination would rend the heart of a nation.



It's hard for young people in today's cynical world to believe there once was a political hero who inspired us to "stand up for an ideal" and challenged us to enter the MORAL conflict." That's right he used the gasp- M word!

Bobby sounded a call to justice that echoes with eloquence. 

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, these ripples will build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

A spiritual poetry infused Bobby's speeches with the essence of the Gospels. He told us:  "Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change...and those with courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the world."

Great intelligence is a gift. Bravery in battle is definitely something to be admired but usually results from the catalyst of a crisis. Almost every person has the seed of heroism that can be summoned at least once in a lifetime for a moment of glory. 

Moral courage however, is a humbler and yet far more powerful quality.  It runs counter cultural to the materialistic fervor and celebration of selfishness that permeates modern society.  Moral courage is not occasional; it's constant.  It demands sacrifice and fidelity.  Simply put, moral courage is dying to yourself and living for others. It is not a glorious martyrdom that happens once and secures the world's admiration.  Rather it is facing the problems and challenges of  daily living----every day making the kind of decisions that can earn the scorn of the world, but win the smile of God. The dull, ordinary martyrdom that was the practice of the majority of the saints in Heaven----that is the moral courage that Bobby displayed and asked of others.


Never did Bobby portray his moral courage more magnificently than on April 4, 1968, when  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  Bobby was scheduled to appear at a rally in an African American neighborhood in Indianapolis.

Because of riots erupting across the country, local authorities tried to discourage him from speaking as scheduled.  Determined to address the waiting crowd he took to the podium and immediately announced the news.     

As cries of sorrow and disbelief arose from the crowd, Bobby delivered a powerful and moving address on the quality of mercy:  " ...For those of you who are black and tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such and act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling.  I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man...the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.  Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.  Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and our people."

There were no riots in Indianapolis that evening as love triumphed over violence.

Honest rhetoric united to action made Bobby one of the greatest influences of my life. Unlike many politicians who place polls over principle, lack a moral compass, and are marketed like brands of soda, Bobby's compassion and integrity were genuine.

We can only imagine what our world would be like if Bobby and his crusade for moral courage still lived among us. I really can't see Bobby submitting to a dictatorship of moral relativism.

How many abortions, executions, and assisted suicides might have been averted if the most charismatic politician of  the last half century was leading the fight to proclaim the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb?  The middle class and the vulnerable would have had a champion, free trade would have to be fair  and wall street gamblers and greedy bankers would have faced an effective watchdog.  

I'm sure he would have celebrated race no longer being a barrier to the Presidency and other signs of progress but I think he would be angry about how government doesn't seem to be working for the people in many cases and how  the power of lobbyists dominate our Congress and state legislatures.

Maybe our polarized society, still divided by racism and ethnic strife, full of voices that denounce the immigrant and alien,  would have been united by the man who declared in his announcement for the Presidency,  "We can end the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, between blacks and whites, between the poor and affluent, between age groups.  We can work together. We are a great country, and unselfish country, and a compassionate country."

And how might Bobby's own family have fared if he had survived. He might have been the foundation needed to avert some of the tragedies. 


In July our family will observe the 25th anniversary of the passing of our father: Dick Tormala.  Dad was one of those daily martyrs who make up the bulk of Heaven. Oh he had his shots of heroism---saving a young girl from drowning in the waters of Lake Superior and pulling a member of his unit from the flames of an aircraft---but those were not what made him great or beloved by his family.  It was his laughter, his love of life, and the daily support (along with constructive criticism when needed in my case) he  always gave us that remain our cherished memories.

Dad was an ordinary person who lived an ordinary life extraordinarily well.

Most everything I know about being a Catholic man, husband and father came from Dad.  He also taught me how to die with courage and dignity, as terminal cancer ravaged his body.

Bobby's children had two decades less of life with their father than I had with mine. I can only imagine the pain they endured from his tragic death and how it effected their lives.

I treasure the years I had with Dad, the lessons learned, the values taught, and the memories made, yet not one day goes by that I don't miss him,  for myself---but even more for my children and now especially the grandchildren. I recall the words of Bobby's favorite poet Aeschylus as the best balm for a grieving soul:

"In our sleep, pain which cannot  forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

Mom, who lost her own Father at too young an age, was told by my Grandmother that he was one of the stars that shines bright in the night sky, always looking after her.

Paying tribute to his late brother Bobby said, "When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: 'When he shall die, take him and cut him into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with the night and pay no worship to the garish sun.' "

This summer our family will gaze at the stars while sharing  memories of Dad and Bobby and make sure the stories live on and perhaps future generations will dream things that never were and say, "Why not?"