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Dick Corbett of Tampa, witness to RFK assassination, still feels the loss every day

Richard Corbett has saved news clippings from his time with the Kennedy family, including one showing him shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. [Times files (2013)]
Richard Corbett has saved news clippings from his time with the Kennedy family, including one showing him shaking hands with John F. Kennedy. [Times files (2013)]
Published Jun. 5, 2018

TAMPA — Dick Corbett became a Tampa developer best known for the International Mall, but in the 1960s, he was a hotshot kid from Rochester, N.Y., with a firsthand view as tragedy befell the Kennedy family.

June 5, 1968, was especially painful for him — the day Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Corbett was 15 feet away.

"I have those dreams of seeing Bobby's body fall down," Corbett said Tuesday. "It's very strong, and it doesn't go away. Despite 50 years behind me, I still replay those memories in slow motion."

Corbett had jumped aboard John F. Kennedy's 1960s campaign for president as Midwest coordinator. He even served on the presidential transition team. That earned him a slot as manager of the family's business office in New York City.

By the time he was 30, he'd been named the head of finance for brother Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.

For almost a decade, he'd hitched himself to the Kennedy family, with big dreams and a high-profile career in the White House on the horizon. But those dreams ended at the hands of Kennedy's assassin, 24-year-old Sirhan Sirhan.

Corbett, now 80, relives the sequence of events almost every day, he said. The rush to the hospital for emergency surgery still wakes up him at night.

On June 4, 1968, Corbett was with Kennedy and the campaign team as they declared victory in the California presidential primary. The candidate seemed poised to capture the Democratic nomination and perhaps follow his slain brother into the White House.

With hopes high, the Kennedy inner circle made its way out of the hotel through the kitchen.

Corbett remembers passing rows of stainless steel work tables littered with dirty dishes and Kennedy shaking the hand of a skinny busboy.

Then, a small man with a .22-caliber revolver stepped out from behind a rack of trays.

Corbett was standing over Kennedy's right shoulder and saw the gun but didn't react. It didn't seem real. By the time the shooter was done, Kennedy was hit three times — once behind his ear, once in his chest and once in the back of his neck. Three other people also had been hit.

Kennedy crumpled to the floor, and the busboy — Juan Modesto, now 67 and living in Modesto, Calif. — found himself cradling Kennedy's bleeding head in his hands. Corbett remembers bending down and loosening Kennedy's tie. Blood and the smell of gunpowder was everywhere.

Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. at Good Samaritan hospital. The family wanted somebody they knew and trusted to remain with the body as an autopsy was performed.

"So I stayed in the morgue, in the basement, the whole night. I watched the coroner perform the autopsy," Corbett said. "The smell of embalming fluid still turns my stomach."

Two days later, Corbett was part of the funeral train that traveled from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

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As Americans mourned the death of yet another leader, Corbett struggled with the end of an era and the death of his own political ambitions — ambitions that had been nurtured by his work with the Kennedys.

"It was a complete change in my life. All the starry-eyed excitement of youth, when you are following somebody who had such an important cause, just dimmed. Bobby's death killed me."

Years later, Corbett got involved in business, borrowed money and dove into real estate in New York. Then, in 1978, he landed in Tampa. He soon became the creator and driving force behind the project adjacent to Tampa International Airport that would become known as International Plaza.

Corbett and his wife, Cornelia, have also owned the Rowdies soccer team and contributed generously to the Tampa Museum of Art. He helped finance construction on a new, $19.1 million cold-storage center for food shipments at Port Tampa Bay and has served as chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Corbett said he lost a friend on June 5, 1968, someone with whom he could share his thoughts and feelings. But in remembrances during this 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination, many have expressed the same sense of loss he still feels.

"Today, I am sad," Corbett said. "It's a feeling of not having an exciting leader in this world anymore. It's a feeling of no longer having cause-oriented politicians and excited young people."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story. Contact Tim Fanning at Follow at @TimothyJFanning.


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