Legal professional who led Kennedy marketing campaign in Indiana dies

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Attorney who led Kennedy campaign in Indiana dies

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On April 4th, 1968, Sen. Robert Kennedy spoke in Indianapolis hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Each year, people gather to remember it.

Ask Mike Riley’s loved ones and they’ll tell you the best memories of the Linton, Indiana, native aren’t safe for print. But, they said, there’s still so much to share about the man. 

His jokes were often inappropriate, but never unkind. His stories were legendary, and often evolved each time he told them. His charisma lit up the room, even a dark courtroom. His political views were liberal, and he wasn’t shy about it. 

He was also a family man, a devoted friend, an accomplished attorney and a political player who managed Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 Indiana campaign for president.

Riley died June 26 after a second fight with cancer. He was 80 years old. 

The ‘fun grandpa’

Riley had a wife of 15 years and a large blended family of nine children and 13 grandchildren, according to his obituary. His wife, Kathy White Riley, said she was drawn to “his humor, his intelligence, his kindness, his inquisitiveness.” She remembers their first date and how Mike put her at ease, asking questions and taking a genuine interest in her answers. 

Mike Riley (Photo: Provided/Brendan Riley)

“…he makes people feel good because he is so down to earth,” she said. 

Brendan Riley said his father was a “very kind and generous man” who made time to listen.

“He just always cared and he always made you feel like you’re the most important thing to him at the time he was speaking to you,” he said. 

Brendan Riley said he remembers their house growing up as being “the house that everybody hung out at.” He and his friends could meet his dad on the back porch and get “all the fatherly advice we could ask for.”

To his grandkids, he was “the fun grandpa,” said Marion County Prosecutor Ryan Mears, Riley’s son-in-law. 

“They were on the same diet of candy,” Mears said. “and so they knew if they ask grandpa Mike for Jelly Beans…they were usually going to get them.”

‘A great trial attorney’

Mike Riley was also known for being competitive, his wife said. She remembers a hiking trip in France when the two first started dating. Mike wasn’t much of a hiker and he could be a bit “prissy” about his clean appearance, but that didn’t stop him from taking on the challenge. 

“He was always out in front… half a block ahead of us just to be first,” Kathy said. 

It’s a trait that showed in in the courtroom. 

Riley, a graduate of what was then the Indiana School of Law, began his career in Indianapolis where he was a deputy city attorney and public defender. In 1980, he opened a private practice in Rensselaer. He practiced there until December 2019. 

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Mike Riley, chairman of the 1968 Robert F. Kennedy Campaign in Indiana holds a photo of himself with Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy taken by Art Harris for The Indianapolis News, on the night of 1968 Presidential Primary election during a press conference at The Lincoln Hotel in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 25, 2018. (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)

According to his obituary, he tried more than 200 jury trials. Mears said Riley was known “as a great trial attorney” who enjoyed the work of persuading others to see things his way. 

Jacob Ahler, who joined Riley’s firm in Rensselaer in 2015, said Riley was “a fantastic mentor and teacher.”

“He was a man that enjoyed practicing law so much that I thoroughly believe if he hadn’t had health problems, he would have continued to practice,” he said. “Mike was a man who not only loved his profession but he loved the people that he worked with every day.”

Campaigning for Robert Kennedy

Ed Treacy met Riley in the late 60s. The two, both political junkies, met through mutual friends. Treacy, who previously served as Democratic Party Chair in both Monroe and Marion counties, said Riley’s passion for politics came from compassion. 

“He just cared about people. He didn’t want to see people being hurt,” he said. 

In college, Riley was president of the College Young Democrats. Three years later, in 1968, the burgeoning 30-year-old lawyer was tapped to be chairman of Robert F. Kennedy’s Indiana campaign for president. 

According to IndyStar archives, Riley got a call from Ted Kennedy to help with efforts to get the necessary signatures on a petition to allow his brother to get on the Indiana ballot — 500 signatures from each of Indiana’s 11 Congressional districts. Riley got the signatures.

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Kennedy victory celebration, Indianapolis campaign headquarters: left to right Mike Riley, Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, May 7, 1968 (Photo: Art Harris/Indianapolis News)

Kennedy, who supported the Civil Rights movement and was against the Vietnam war, believed a victory for him in conservative Indiana would prove that he could be elected president. So he spent a lot of time in Indiana, a bit of it in Riley’s living room, where he filmed a TV commercial.

Kennedy’s candidacy in Indiana — the first primary that year — is best remembered for the poignant, impromptu speech April 4 when Kennedy broke the news to a mostly Black audience at 17th and Broadway that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. Riley planned Kennedy’s appearance that night.

Two months later, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. 

“I think it kind of shaped him, professionally for sure,” Brendan Riley said of his father’s time with Kennedy. “And I know that influenced his whole life from that day forward.”

‘Loved by a lot of people’

Treacy said Riley’s relationship with the Kennedys, particularly Ted Kennedy, continued for years. He remembers attending a Kennedy family party in 1976 with Riley and how much of the family recognized Riley and greeted him with open arms. 

“I mean whenever Mike walked in a room everybody got a little smile because you knew you were really going to have an enjoyable time,” Treacy said. “He just had one of these electric personalities.” 

Bill Hurst knew Riley for roughly 70 years. The two met in middle school and played high school football together. Hurst said Riley used to tell a story about how he broke Hurst’s leg playing football. 

Mike Riley (Photo: Provided/Brendan Riley)

“I have no recollection of that and I suspect it was a sprained ankle and it grew into a better story over the years,” Hurst said through chuckles.

The two remained friends through the decades, even traveling France and celebrating Riley’s 80th birthday last year. Hurst said Riley, ever the trial attorney, managed to convince a doctor to give him the OK to travel abroad. 

Most of the friends and family who spoke to IndyStar did so eagerly, often suggesting more people to talk to, more people with Riley stories to share.  

“He was just loved by a lot of people, and he made people happy,” his wife said.

“He really did make people happy.”

Contact IndyStar reporter Elizabeth DePompei at 317-444-6196 or edepompei@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @edepompei.

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