Alumnus Donates Piece of History to Mitchell Hall

Residence hall displays “Keep on Truckin’,” a photograph taken by Seth Beckerman from Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral train.

SBeckerman Kennedy
January 07, 2014

By Julyssa Lopez

“Keep on Truckin’ ” captures a peculiar scene: Three nuns are standing in the back of a white pickup truck as small clusters of people stare at the train tracks sprawled in front of them. A copy of the image hangs proudly in Mitchell Hall, telling the story of a sticky, humid day in June 1968.

Seth Beckerman, B.A. ’68, remembers that year for its turbulence. He was a senior at the George Washington University and witnessed the country falling into tumult after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and two months later, the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Following a memorial in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Sen. Kennedy’s body was transported to Washington, D.C., during an eight-hour train ride, more than twice the usual transit time. The Kennedy press office contacted the U.S. Student Press Association (USSPA) and invited student journalists to board the train to report the emotional event.

Mr. Beckerman was no stranger to capturing moments on film—he had worked in darkrooms since middle school and printed photos during his part-time job at the National Education Association. He was a photographer and a writer for the GW Hatchet, which had a relationship with USSPA. Mr. Beckerman was asked to participate in the funeral procession as a student journalist. He stuffed an extra shirt and two 35mm cameras in his camera bag, and flew to New York City.

He stood at the end of a train car, shooting through the open top half of a door. During the long ride, he took more than 300 photographs as tearful crowds lined the tracks to say goodbye to the beloved senator.

“I certainly didn’t want to sit and watch everything go by. I wanted to take as many pictures as possible, because there were so many poignant moments of people standing by the tracks,” he said.

“Keep on Truckin’ ” is just one of many images from the procession. Mr. Beckerman recalled that one man who had climbed atop a box car accidentally touched an electric line and was electrocuted. He still has a photograph of the ghastly scene. Another one of his pictures shows a man holding a child, a touching moment Mr. Beckerman appreciates because it can be interpreted in many ways.

“The child probably had no idea what was going on, but did the man — perhaps his father or grandfather — want to be able to tell him that he was there that day? There is endless speculation you could make about that particular photo,” Mr. Beckerman said.

At one point, Mr. Beckerman moved from a designated press car to a car filled with official guests. Trying to remain inconspicuous, he held his camera low, but soon ran into what could have been a wall. He looked up and realized he’d bumped into Roosevelt “Rosey” Grier, a former NFL player who worked as Sen. Kennedy’s bodyguard and had subdued shooter Sirhan Sirhan at the time of the assassination.

“Roosevelt Grier looked at me and said, ‘I thought I told you not to come back here!’ I may not be the brightest guy in the world, but I knew better than to argue with a guy who was one of the Fearsome Foursome of the Los Angeles Rams,” Mr. Beckerman said.

His memories from the train ride are vivid. Yet, he had stored away his photographs for years, and it wasn’t until the 40th anniversary of Sen. Kennedy’s death in 2008 that he began to rifle through the images. He donated all the negatives to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston.

Mr. Beckerman began to wonder if anyone else could benefit from the photos. He has a number of friends across the country who are associated with nonprofits, and he donated copies of “Keep on Truckin’ ” to their fundraising auctions, including a women’s shelter in Baltimore, a food bank in Pittsburgh, an AIDS hospice in Portland, Ore., and the Marine Science Center in Port Townsend, Wash., among others. He estimates that over the last two years, copies of the photo have sold for more than $4,000 in total.

Last year he read an article in George Washington Today about alumni artwork being displayed in GW dormitories, and he decided to add his alma mater to the list of institutions with a copy of “Keep on Truckin’.” He contacted the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, which administers the GW Permanent Collection, to donate the piece. The image was placed in Mitchell Hall and is now also a part of the GW Permanent Collection.

Mr. Beckerman continued to take pictures after college, shooting while working on archaeological digs during seven field seasons in southeastern Washington state. He describes his experience working on the GW Hatchet as something that has shaped his life. Because of his deep connection to the student newspaper, he contributed to the “Home for the Hatchet” fundraiser to help purchase the townhouse that will become the new Hatchet offices. He hopes the picture he took as a GW journalist will intrigue students and make them want to know more about the story behind the image.

“There were so many poignant moments during that train ride,” he said. “The scene indicates the solemnity of that day.”