Remembering the Epic Summer of 1969

Jocelyn Thomas Features

Fifty years ago this summer, a pair of history-making events captivated Americans and millions of others around the world.

The landing on the moon of two men in 1969 created long-lasting memories for many. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

A half-century later, the iconic images of these epic events are still etched in the memories of those old enough to remember July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first astronauts to walk on the moon, and August 15 of that same year, when nearly half a million people descended on a rural New York State dairy farm for a three-day outdoor music festival that through the years has simply been called Woodstock.

Millions were fixated on the spectacular images on the front pages of newspapers and mesmerizing live video news reports of television networks back in 1969 – photos and videos that are resurfacing this summer as the media commemorates these extraordinary events.

The image that was used for publicizing Woodstock festival of August 1969. (Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History on Flickr)

As people the world over remember these significant occurrences on their 50th anniversary, several Franciscan friars were asked to share their recollections of that historic summer. For some friars – especially two who described being at Cape Canaveral, Fla., when Apollo 11 blasted off – the landing and moonwalk seem like yesterday.

For other friars, details of Woodstock were just as vivid – several recalling their attempts to attend the festival and the miles-long traffic jams on roads leading to the site, which was not far from Sullivan County, at the time the location of the Provincial seminary.

Talking about these events, for some friars,  conjured up memories of the Vietnam War, their personal ministry, and the culture of Holy Name Province at that time. The memories of 14 friars are shared in the following paragraphs.

Brian Cullinane, OFM, St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, Mass.
I was in Michigan taking graduate courses in radio and television production at the University of Detroit.  It was an exciting time to be in media, even as a graduate student, as we were closely following the first planned moon landing by NASA.  On Sunday, July 20, there was great anticipation knowing that history would be made when Neil Armstrong would actually step out of Apollo 11 and take the very first human steps on the surface of the moon.  Like 500 million other anxious people in every corner of the globe, many of us gathered in a TV room that evening to watch the live broadcast.  The next day, I bought several different newspapers with pictures of this historic event. After finishing my courses in Detroit, I was assigned to live at Assumption Parish in Wood-Ridge, N.J., where I would later serve as pastor for nine years.  It was Friday, August 15, and I was driving northbound on Route 17 in unusually tremendous traffic – which I figured was caused by an accident.  But later that evening, I heard on the news that thousands upon thousands of cars, mobile homes, trucks, and motorcycles were heading up Route 17 to attend a three-day concert in Bethel, N.Y.  I hadn’t heard anything prior to that, but for the next few days, Woodstock made headlines because of some of the wild things that took place.
John Felice, OFM, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, New York City
On the day of the Apollo landing, I was in northern California at a vocation directors meeting.  The friary there was an ordinary house and the friars went about their work as usual.  I had little to do until my flight back the next day, so I sat down and watched the news.  I had no idea of the enormity of the event.  The landing on the ashy surface of the moon left a profound impression even to this day.  The words of Neil Armstrong that Walter Cronkite reported are etched in my memory still:  One small step for man, one giant step for mankind. Fifty years later, it is still a remarkable event.
Roberto Gonzales, OFM, San Juan, Puerto Rico
That summer, I was in San Juan, spending my vacation from Siena College with my family. I was working with my father.  I remember looking at the moon that night and feeling simply awestruck! Actually, during those years of my life, I would often contemplate the moon and the stars at night.
Daniel Grigassy, OFM, St. Bonaventure Parish, Paterson, N.J.
When the first men landed on the moon, I was 19 years old, working at a Gulf service station pumping gas on a busy street corner in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Penn., just blocks from the Tree of Life Synagogue. When the news broke, the whole corner went crazy with horns and hoots and lots of happy people. It was wonderful to experience.
Thomas Hartle, OFM, St. Anthony Friary, Butler, N.J.
I was a student, studying for the priesthood in 1969, two years removed from ordination. I had a summer job working on the highway.  I remember vividly being glued to the television as the Apollo 11 mission unfolded – and the feeling of disbelief when it touched down on the surface of the moon. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the lunar module, I thought, ‘Is this really happening?!’  I was a witness to an event whose historical significance surpassed any other in history. Perhaps because I lived in a very small town, there was little coverage of the other major events of that summer, including Woodstock and the Stonewall uprising (the demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against a June 28, 1969, police raid at the Stonewall Inn in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood).  Basically, I knew of these events, but very little beyond that.  Since my brother was in the military serving in Vietnam, I was more focused on the war and worried and concerned about his safety.
John Heffernan, OFM, Holy Name of Jesus-St. Gregory the Great Parish, New York City
It was the summer following graduation from Canisius High School in Buffalo. My sister had read about a summer music festival in Woodstock, N.Y., billed as the first of its kind to ever be assembled. The list of performers was extensive and impressive. I mentioned it to my friends and we decided it would be a great trip before we went our separate ways to college. We didn’t purchase tickets in advance because that would have required getting a check or money order from our parents since there were no electronic devices to purchase and store tickets in those days.  We simply left on Friday evening after work, headed east and then south, and hoped for the best. When traffic on the narrow country roads came to a standstill, we drove as far as we could, left the car and – with a case of beer that we took turns carrying – followed crowds of people. We walked for hours, learning that we’d actually passed the site. Droves of people were walking in both directions. As dawn began to break, it was raining. There was no shelter, few sanitary facilities, and little food. We begged a bit for this and that. Our breakfast was an ice cream bar!  Besides the discomfort and confusion, we were suspicious that there wouldn’t even be a concert. Since we were so close, we decided to go to New York City instead. Hence, we missed the biggest culturally transforming event of its time. When I returned to my job on Monday, the laborers I worked with were astounded by the news reports. They dismissed Woodstock as youthful radicalism. Over the years, my buddies and I only grew more distressed that we had not stayed!
Richard Husted, OFM, St. Anthony Friary, Butler, N.J.
In the summer of ‘69, we were beginning a ministry at Christ House in Lafayette, N.J.  I remember watching the endless line of traffic, passing the bottom of the hill – thousands of people on their way to Woodstock.   I also recall saying to Salvator Fink, OFM (universally known among friars as “Doc”), “You know, Doc, if we are going to work with young people, wouldn’t it be good if I went where the action is happening?”  Doc responded with a resounding, “No!”
Daniel Kenna, OFM, St. Francis of Assisi Friary, New York City
The launch of Apollo 11 was very memorable for me.  I was there!  My classmate John O’Connor  and I were studying at the University of South Florida during the summer of ‘69.  We traveled across the state to Cape Canaveral where we were able to get close enough to hear the roar of the rockets, see the slow rise of the craft, and feel the incredible shaking of the earth around us.  It was an awesome experience that, in some small way, influenced my “I can do it” attitude about life.
Daniel McLellan, OFM, St. Andrew Parish, Clemson, S.C.
As I look back to the ’60s, 1963 and 1968 are etched in my mind for obvious reasons (the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., respectively) – but 1969, not so much. I am not sure I’d agree that 1969 was “the year everything changed,” as Rob Kirkpatrick said. But it was a year that didn’t get in the way of what historian Philip Gleason described as the “de-legitimation of authority.” I remember it as a year in which efforts were ramped up to disengage from Vietnam, which those of us at Siena College watched very closely. The impact of our moon landing was overshadowed by the bigger impact of Woodstock. In Holy Name Province, the symbolic 1967 election of Finian Kerwin, OFM, as Provincial Minister was bearing fruit – with the Province, along with the culture, taking a turn to the individual. Though I didn’t know it at the time, 1969 was the year that saw the first step toward building the Internet, and the first flight of the 747 – both accomplishments that promoted the democratization of communication and travel.
Joseph Nangle, OFM, Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Va.
My memories of 1969 probably differ from others. I was well into my years as a missioner to Bolivia and Peru, which placed those countries at the center of my consciousness. Nevertheless, like people everywhere, the moon landing in July of that year held us spellbound. A group of parishioners at our parish in Lima gathered with me to watch those super-dramatic televised moments when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moonscape and uttered the iconic words: one small step for man, one giant leap for humanity. Like the rest of the world, we knew what Armstrong said was absolutely true.  Aside from that moment, my recollections of ’69 go to the beginning of Liberation Theology. Around that time, Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez suggested that our weekly pastoral reflections – in our case, based on social analyses of Peruvian/Latin American realities – were probably carving our Exodus event: the liberation of God’s people from oppression.  Finally, 1969 saw the continuation of the dramatic Extraordinary Chapter in our Province. During three sessions, we passionately debated and ultimately, by divine providence, engraved the beginning of HNP’s response to the Second Vatican Council and the historic turnaround that Vatican II initiated.
John O’Connor, OFM, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Triangle, Va.
I witnessed the blast-off of the Apollo 11 spacecraft from Cape Canaveral!  I was in St Petersburg, Fla.,at the time with Dan Kenna and former friar Richard Fleshren. The three of us were in formation, working as assistant chaplains at St.Anthony Hospital. Some of the staff members suggested that we all get up in the middle of the night and drive to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch. We were all young, so everyone agreed – sure, let’s do it.We arrived as the sun was rising, parked our car, and attempted to get as close as possible. For security reasons, the public was not allowed on the grounds of the launch site, unless of course, you were a VIP.  We went to the entrance of the Air Force base on the Banana River, directly across from the site. At first, the Military Police wouldn’t let us onto the base.  I pointed out to one of the military officers that individuals were going into the river and circumventing the guard post to access the base.  I remember him saying something like, “Oh, what the heck,” and then letting us through the gate. We had a great view of the rocket and the blast-off. As we watched the launch, the ground beneath us shook.  It’s an experience I will never forget.  Woodstock took place just minutes away from the Province seminary in Callicoon.  I remember two of our friars having very different views of this event.  Joel Munzing, OFMwho was the pastor at that time at a parish in Jeffersonville, N.Y., was very critical of Woodstock.  In contrast, Joe Trunk, OFM, used the seminary pickup truck to come to the aid of young people whose vehicles were stuck in the mud from intense rainstorms at the music festival. Joe thought the young folks and the event were great.
Ronald Pecci, OFM, College of Mount Saint Vincent, Bronx, N.Y.
What I most remember from the summer of ’69 was Woodstock. Although I was aware of the moon landing and Stonewall, I don’t remember much about them. I was 18 and mostly concerned about my own little world. I had just completed my freshman year at St. Bonaventure University and was working a job at a cosmetics factory not far from my home in New Jersey. The factory employed about 20 college students every summer to boost their production in preparation for Christmas sales.That summer, two of my colleagues organized the trip to Woodstock for 10 of us. We didn’t have tickets but intended to buy them when we got there. We planned to arrive in two shifts – with the first group taking off from work to get there early and secure the tickets for everyone. I was in the second group that was going up on Friday after work. We heard some early reports of the festival being overcrowded and somewhat wild, but that made it even more attractive.  Shortly before quitting time on Friday, we got a call from the first group warning us not to attempt the drive to Woodstock. They couldn’t even get close to the festival grounds and weren’t sure how they would get back home because their car was stuck in the mud from the heavy rains. Unfortunately, they bought tickets from people who were leaving the music festival before it began due to the harsh conditions.  I don’t remember the cost of the tickets, but they were expensive by my standards.  Our colleagues from the first group returned to work on Monday with only negative things to say about the entire event.  They were apologetic about the tickets being worthless.  As the days after the festival went on, those of us in the second group realized it was a mistake to have given up on making the trip to what was, by all accounts, an unparalleled event of our lifetime – at least for baby boomers.  The then-expanding Vietnam War became the saddest event of our era.
Andrew Reitz, OFM, St. Francis of Assisi Parish, New York City
I was still in formation 50 years ago, attending summer school at the University of New Hampshire. I remember the full moon overhead as I was driving to my destination that evening. I kept thinking that our astronauts would be landing somewhere on the moon and that I would be able to see them. But later I watched it on tv and I was just amazed that President Kennedy’s goal of putting a man on the moon indeed had happened. In spite of the tragedy of the Vietnam War, this was one step forward.
Daniel Riley, OFM, Holy Peace Friary, West Clarksville, N.Y.
During the summer of ’69, I was in Beach Haven, N.J., on the Jersey Shore, where the friars operated a coffeehouse called The Bridge for a few years.  I found it to be a powerful experience.  We used a large building where every evening we offered to young people a place for prayer and music along with socializing and other things including painting and, of course, food.  We’d go up and down the island – Long Beach Island –getting donuts from several bakeries.  Roughly 200 young people would come each night.  It was a wonderful place, located just a block or so from the church on Third Street, St. Thomas.  All of the six or seven friars who were stationed there were young.  I was the second oldest and I was only 26 — still two years away from being ordained. I have such wonderful memories from that era.  Many aspects of it are still part of my life.  For example, the cross in the cabin where I live is from The Bridge.  It was made from the wood at Christ House in northern New Jersey.  And, I’m in touch with some of the young people who came to the coffee house.  A young man who I knew from The Bridge is coming to see me with his wife in a few weeks.

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note: The friar photos in this article are from Provincial Catalogs of the 1970s and 1980s.