BY TALIA SMITH
Seventeen-year-old Joseph Vitale, now president of the County College of Morris Foundation and executive director of College Advancement and Planning, packed his knapsack, canteen and sleeping bag into a Volkswagen Beetle Thursday, Aug. 14, 1969. Vitale and his friend, Mike, set out for what his parents thought would be a weekend camping trip.
As they drove up the New York State Thruway, traffic grew progressively worse until it came to a standstill. Motorists pulled over on the side of the highway, so the two teenagers did the same. They grabbed their camping gear and decided to walk the rest of the way. Vitale asked Mike which way to go. He answered, “Follow the crowd, man.”
The next day, 16-year-old Camille Barrett, now administrative assistant for the Health and Natural Science division at CCM, made a similar endeavor with her three friends. After hearing rumors about horrible traffic conditions, they parked on a friendly farmer’s lawn and walked the final seven miles to the concert. As Barrett approached the concert entrance, her $7 ticket in hand, she saw fallen gates and a “sea of people” enveloping the countryside.
The weekend of Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, was one to remember for Vitale and Barrett, because they took part in the “three days of peace and music,” known as Woodstock.
“What makes Woodstock so unique to me is the spontaneous, unplanned nature of the event,” Vitale said. “Today we live in the era of planned mega-events, and there is so little spontaneity.”
The music festival attracted more than 500,000 young adults to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, N.Y. The headlining musical acts included the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Jimi Hendrix, among others.
Woodstock is remembered today partly for the lineup of legendary musicians but also for being a remarkably peaceful gathering in the midst of a tumultuous time in history that involved the Vietnam War, civil rights movement and assassinations of political leaders and activists.
“In many ways Woodstock was magic,” said Joe Bilotti, professor of the Rock History and Culture course at CCM. “The success of it stemmed on people acting in good faith and behaving themselves, and they did.”
Vitale and Barrett said they did not anticipate Woodstock becoming an event that would be written about in textbooks. Barrett recalled fellow concert-goers sharing their food when she ran out and also sleeping on a tarp in the rain.
“It [Woodstock] became such a part of us,” Barrett said. “I think it was a turning point in my life because I realized that this sense of community and cooperation was a really good feeling during the time of the ‘60s with the Vietnam War and everything.”
Barrett married her friend, Gary, a few years after they attended Woodstock together. They brought their daughter back to Bethel, N.Y., to show her the spot where her parents spent three days in 1969. Barrett takes her children and grandchildren to the Peach Festival in Scranton, Pa., every summer to keep the “good feeling” of Woodstock alive.
Vitale’s Woodstock experience was cut short when Mike began suffering symptoms of appendicitis Saturday night, shortly after the Who’s set. Vitale rushed his friend back to New Jersey to have his appendix removed.
“I can’t believe we missed Hendrix,” Mike said to Vitale when he visited him in the hospital. They remain friends to this day and reminisce about Woodstock when they see each other. Vitale’s parents didn’t find out he attended Woodstock until 20 years after the fact.
Vitale chooses not to revisit the sight of Woodstock so as to keep the original image in his memory in its “purest form.” He said he would like to remember the “beautiful” and “life-changing” event as his 17-year-old self.
“I think people of my generation romanticize it [Woodstock] because we were young, we were kids,” Vitale said. “What’s more beautiful than being 17, 18, 19 and experiencing this incredible event with other 17, 18, 19-year-olds? We did feel we were like a race and a tribe unto ourselves and totally unique. We were our own generation experiencing something that no other generation had experienced.”