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Dutch professor puts together exhibit of photos taken by witnesses to RFK's funeral train

Dutch photographer Rein Jelle Terpstra is currently working on a book of photographs taken from the point of view of people, such as Stephanie Lang, who came out to watch former United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy's funeral train travel up the East Coast in 1968. (Michael Ares, Baltimore Sun video)

It was hot and muggy in Maryland on June 8, 1968. Michael Scott was 15 years old, and he remembers the humid air as heavy on his skin. It felt like grief made physical.

Michael and his mother stood at the railroad tracks near their Cecil County home and watched a 21-car funeral train pass carrying the body of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who had been fatally shot three days earlier at a Los Angeles hotel.

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"The train was moving mournful slow," said Scott, who now is 64 and recently moved to San Francisco.

"In the last car was a casket with a flag draped over it. A lady was sitting next to it wearing a veil. It was Ethel Kennedy, Bobby's wife. Even at 15 years old, I felt a connection to this man, this gladiator, who used his voice to take a stand against war and racial injustice. I felt compelled to be there."

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The boy and his mother were among the more than 1 million people who stood along the tracks that run between New York and Washington to bid farewell to Kennedy, a former U.S. attorney general who had championed civil rights.

Scott's story was recorded by Rein Jelle Terpstra, a Dutch photographer and professor who's been traveling up and down the East Coast interviewing people who lined the funeral train's route. Terpstra is borrowing their photographs from that day, in addition to their memories.

Terpstra, who has family in the Baltimore area, has been here five times in the past few years, using the city as his East Coast base. He mostly found interview subjects through word of mouth and the occasional news article on his project.

His work will be included in an exhibition running next spring at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, commemorating the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death. (A museum spokeswoman said that the show's title and specific dates haven't been finalized.)

Terpstra, the recipient of a 2017 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, is also working on a photography book that he envisages as a companion to and the mirror image of Paul Fusco's acclaimed "RFK Funeral Train."

In 1968, Fusco, a photographer for Look magazine, rode the funeral train and snapped images of the people waiting at railroad crossings to pay their final respects to the dead civil rights leader. In 2001, he compiled them in a book.

Together, the two sets of photographs — the first taken from the train by a professional photographer, and the second, by ordinary Americans who watched the train go by — will document the despair and the crisis of confidence that had enveloped the nation.

Dutch photographer travels East Coast interviewing witnesses to Robert Kennedy's funeral train for possible book

The previous five years had included the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the peaking of protests to the Vietnam War, race riots that ravaged American cities, and the slaying of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

When King was shot, Robert Kennedy was in Indianapolis to give a campaign speech. According to published accounts, the empathy and compassion with which he informed the crowd of King's murder was credited with helping to spare Indianapolis from the civil unrest that ravaged the rest of the nation.

And then, just two months later, Kennedy himself was dead.

"Indianapolis was one of the few cities in America that did not burn in the race riots," Scott said. "Bobby Kennedy was one of my true heroes. When he died, it was as though hope had died, too."

Compounding the tragedy, two mourners standing on the tracks in Elizabeth, N.J., hoping to bid farewell to Kennedy were struck and killed by a northbound passenger train. Four other people were injured.

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It seems curious that this seminal day in U.S. history is being documented not by an American scholar, but by the 57-year-old Terpstra, who teaches art and photography at Minerva Academy of Fine Arts in The Netherlands.

But the Dutch photographer's birthday happens to be on the Fourth of July. His father was fascinated by the United States and by the Kennedy clan, and young Rein grew up thinking of them almost as family friends.

"My father told me many stories about the Kennedys," he said. "It made an imprint on me as a kid."

As an adult and professional photographer, he came to revere Fusco's book. After poring over the photographs, he began wondering what the people in them had experienced and seen.

He began looking for a book or magazine article that related their perspective and was astonished to find that although there were occasional recollections by those who had watched the funeral train pass, there was no comprehensive account.

"In my work as a photographer and as an artist, I'm always trying to reverse the relationship between photography and memory," Terpstra says.

"A photograph is a residue. The people who stood along the tracks taking photographs were trying to capture not only the funeral train or an era, but a moment in their own lives. My aim is [to take] all the photographs and all the stories behind them and merge them into a kind of collective memory that will become a part of history."

“A Beautiful Ghetto,” a collection of 100 black-and-white photographs of Allen’s hometown, is the latest accomplishment for the self-taught photographer who gained acclaim after the 2015 unrest.

Terpstra reached out to Fusco's daughter and received the family's blessing to pursue the project. In 2015, he was invited to see the "Pennsylvania 120" — the final car of the funeral train that bore Kennedy's coffin — by Bennett Levin, the Philadelphia millionaire who now owns it.

Terpstra hopes to publish his book on June 5, 2018, 50 years to the day after Kennedy was slain.

During a recent research trip to Baltimore, he came across a treasure: five square snapshots carefully mounted on a piece of red and blue cardboard dotted with white stars that evoked the American flag.

Under the photos, a typed caption reads:

"On June 8, 1968, a train delivered the body of Robert Kennedy from NYC to Washington, DC so that he could be buried in Arlington National Cemetery next to his brother, John F. Kennedy."

The poster was made by Stephanie Lang, now 73 and a resident of Mount Airy. In 1968, she, her husband and their young daughter went to the train crossing at 3501 W. Biddle St. to watch the funeral train pass. She remembers that there was not one, but three trains — a pilot train in front to clear obstacles from the roadway, the funeral train in the middle, and a reserve train that followed behind in case of calamity.

"We were at the top of a hill looking down over a barbed wire fence," Lang said.

"I had to carry my daughter in my arms. The train passed under the bridge, and I think I put my hand over my heart. History was being made right in front of me, and I wanted to be a part of it."

Terpstra was struck by the care with which Lang made the poster and by the fact that she had kept it for half a century.

"It's almost like a family album," he told Lang. "I think that an audience who looks at these pictures will feel what you felt when you were standing there."

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In the ensuing years, Lang has occasionally looked at the poster and related the Kennedy family's ordeal to her own experience of losing people she's loved.

"At that time," she said, "I didn't understand grief as well as I do now."

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