Before she moved to the Canadian Arctic, traveled solo around the world, wrote a novel, started a San Francisco consulting firm, or built a vineyard in Central California, Mara Feeney worried that she couldn’t do difficult things.
That fear started to dissolve 50 years ago this week when the recent Cherry Hill West graduate painted a peace sign in shoe polish on her mother’s Dodge Dart and took off for a three-day concert in Upstate New York, one that her $18 ticket identified as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
“I was a little nerdy and Woodstock was kind of a risk,” Feeney says. “But it taught me that taking risks had rewards.”
From Aug. 15 through Aug. 18, 1969, Feeney was one speck in a vast quilt of humanity, some 400,000 concertgoers who stretched across 600 muddy acres of dairy farm near Bethel, N.Y. Their unanticipated numbers, the hardships they encountered, the communal spirit they displayed, and the music they enjoyed quickly transformed Woodstock into the embodiment of the chaotic decade then nearing its end.
Fifty years later, its aftermath is still being debated. Was Woodstock’s legacy really peace, love, and harmony? Or were sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll what it showcased? Were the values attributed to its tie-dyed throng an improvement on the gray, stifling certainties of the previous decade? Or as an Inquirer letter-writer posited on the festival’s 20th anniversary, was it “a flashing light warning that the turn in the road ahead was just before the downhill decline?”
That weekend, toward the end of a summer that also saw the Apollo 11 moon landing, Chappaquiddick, and the Manson murders, thousands from the Philadelphia area were among those who flocked to Max Yasgur’s farm. Their experiences — the music and mud, the paucity of food and sanitary facilities, the brown acid, and the New York Thruway traffic — are now a familiar part of `60s lore. Less documented was how that event directed the futures of those who lived through it.
While Feeney was emboldened, discovering a confidence there that transformed the high-school nerd into a whirlwind of activism, Russ Chomiak, a pot-smoking, antiwar, antiestablishment collegian, began to morph into a conservative Main Line Republican. Doylestown’s Pat Colucci, then a Catholic seminarian, unexpectedly found a wife that weekend as well as an outlook that’s enabled him to balance a lifelong spiritual curiosity with his vocation: selling cars. And thanks to Woodstock, Greg Cowper, who assumed he’d take over his father’s printing business, instead became an Academy of Natural Sciences entomologist and weekend rock-accordionist.
For all four, the Aquarian Exposition’s “three days of peace and music” remain a touchstone in the stories of their lives.
Growing up on one of the last farms in affluent Westchester County, N.Y., Pat Colucci knew there was something more, something mysterious that he needed to understand. As a boy, the feeling was so intense he drew question marks in the corners of his books. By age 12, he thought he had an answer: the priesthood.
He was a second-year seminary student in Manhattan, still unfulfilled, when he spotted a New York Daily News ad for an upstate music festival.
A few weeks later, he was sitting on a motorcycle, stalled in traffic that overwhelmed tiny Bethel that third weekend of August, his certainty dissolved.
“I was busted and broken up psychologically,” he says.
And at that moment, a beautiful 17-year-old girl named Maria appeared. Together they rode to the concert, shared a bottle of Boone’s Farm apple wine, and stayed through Jimi Hendrix.
“She talked the angst out of me,” recalls Colucci, 70, a small, fit, mustachioed man. “I went to Woodstock to die and an angel saved my life.”
By the time folksinger Richie Havens kicked off the performances that Friday, Colucci was near euphoric.
“I was thinking, `Richie Havens, wine, a motorcycle, a girl, 350,000 unsupervised kids. Lord, it doesn’t get much better than this,’ ” he recalled. “Talk about a sign.”
At Woodstock he got the sense he was part of something dynamic. “I tasted pure freedom for the first time. It was exhilarating beyond belief. I remember on Saturday night when Sly [Stone] sang `I want to take you higher.’ The whole mountain shook. He wanted to take us higher, but in social consciousness, not a drug sense.”
Before long, Colucci had quit seminary, married Maria, and dived even deeper into that lifelong fascination with philosophy, theology, spirituality. Those who meet him are always surprised when he tells them he’s a car salesman who, he said, sold 633 units for Montgomeryville’s J.L. Freed Honda the last two years.
He’s still married, with two sons, two grandchildren. He lives in Doylestown and loves the work he’s done for 30 years. And after encounters with Catholicism, Buddhism, Kabbalah, and nearly as many philosophies as there were acts at the festival, he’s found peace in the Greek Orthodox church — which he calls “a spiritual hospital.”
“With everything that’s happened to me since, and there’s been a lot,” he said, “Woodstock has been there in the back of my head.”
Fifty years later, that weekend is a blur for Mara Feeney. She remembers abandoning the car in stalled traffic a few miles from the concert site, chopping cabbage in the emergency communal kitchen, falling asleep during Janis Joplin’s set, and, unsurprisingly, smelling marijuana everywhere.
She was an unlikely candidate for a Woodstock-sized adventure, a “timid” and “nerdy” honors student, who wrote for the literary magazine and marched in the drum and bugle corps.
“I had teenage angst,” she says. “I wasn’t a happy creature. I still was trying to figure life out.”
Unable to afford Bryn Mawr, she found three jobs after school — working at Dunkin’ Donuts, at a pie plate factory, and as a secretary. By August, she was exhausted.
“Then all of a sudden, a Woodstock poster appeared right in front of my eyes,” she recalled. “I said, `I’m going.’ ”
She bought a ticket and with high school friends Steve Plotnik and Fred England, drew that peace sign on her mother’s car, and headed north.
What has endured from Woodstock was a sense of enterprise.
“I didn’t know it before then,” she said, “but I found out there that I had an adventurous spirit.”
Questioning everything afterward, Feeney discovered that the creative-writing courses she took when she eventually got to Bryn Mawr weren’t for her. On a campus bulletin board, she saw an ad for another summer adventure, an anthropology course in a remote Inuit village on the Hudson Bay.
In the Canadian Arctic, as at Woodstock, she was immersed in an alien world, but this time surrounded by 398,000 fewer people. "I was totally smitten. I fell in love with the people, the landscape, everything.”
Feeney returned to the region again and again. After grad school in Vancouver for community and regional planning, she traveled around the world on a budget of $1.50 a day. "I slept in a lot of youth hostels, on a lot of trains. I got to satisfy my wanderlust.”
Back in Canada she fell in love with an old college acquaintance and moved to San Francisco.
In 2005, she and her longtime partner were married. On their 18-acre Damas Vineyards in the Sierra foothills, they grow zinfandel, primrose, and sauvignon blanc varieties.
Along the way, Feeney, 69, has maintained the activist spirit born at Woodstock, advocating for gay marriage and serving on the boards of San Francisco Beautiful and Habitat for Humanity.
“Woodstock came at a time when I really needed it," she says. "It was such a meaningful experience. And I still think about that car. After three days that peace sign really got baked in, which didn’t make my conservative dad real happy.”
Greg Cowper has one Woodstock regret. And it isn’t that he helped Abbie Hoffman “liberate” the food in several concession stands.
“I didn’t collect insects while I was there,” says Cowper, 70, who now does that wherever he goes. “A 50-year-old collection of bugs from Yasgur’s farm would make a really cool exhibit. If I had it to do over, I’d run around Woodstock with my butterfly net. With all the crazy stuff that went on there, no one would have thought anything of it.”
The entomologist now manages the Academy of Natural Sciences’ collection of 4 million insects.
Fifty years ago, he was a Cherry Hill native, studying psychology and biology at Oklahoma State when he traveled to Woodstock in his 1960 Oldsmobile station wagon with a friend from college.
He got close enough to the stage that he shows up in both a Life magazine photo taken during Country Joe & the Fish’s set and in the film Woodstock.
After college, he came home to work in his father’s printing business. Twenty years later, when his dad retired, Cowper thought of Woodstock.
"The landscape at Yasgur’s farm and upstate New York was beautiful and that really got into my head.”
Cowper got out of printing and into insects.
“I had to make it happen,” he said, “and that’s part of the Woodstock mentality.”
He lives in Northern Liberties with his second wife and is busy assisting with an art installation at Eastern State Penitentiary. For the last five years, using the pseudonym Gus Cordovox, he’s played accordion in the Ben Vaughn Combo.
“Now that I’m affiliated with the academy, I love curators,” he said. “I met a woman who manages Drexel’s costume collection. Turns out denim is her specialty. When I told her I went to Woodstock and still had the jeans I wore there, she said `Let’s add it to the collection.’
“I thought that was really cool and fitting. I mean, I painted them myself.”
Russ Chomiak, 70, a retired engineer and valve-company executive, identifies himself as a conservative Republican and Trump supporter, but he sounds more like a Wavy Gravy disciple when discussing Woodstock.
“I honestly believe we could have done more to make the world better,” he says of himself and his festival mates, 15 Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers from the former Newark College of Engineering. “Take technology. We became greedy and looked at how it could line our wallets instead of how we could use it to promote a better life for inner-city kids, for countries outside the U.S., for a cleaner environment, a healthier work space, fairer wages for women.”
Wearing jeans, a floppy hat, and hippie vest, the son of a Ukrainian tavern owner from Clifton, N.J., was in some ways indistinguishable from his fellow spectators. But, as an engineering student, he was better-prepared than most, equipped with beer, canned food, a change of clothes, sleeping bag, tent, and one roll of toilet paper.
“We were antiwar, marched in protests, waved our banners," Chomiak recalls. "But at the same time we knew we had careers coming up soon. Eventually the opportunity to succeed overtook our political bent and we shifted from liberal left to conservative right, though not being extreme in either.”
On the way home, he stopped to bathe in the Delaware River. It was, in a way, a symbolic cleansing. His first job, with a large oil company, tested whatever Woodstock values had lingered.
“My project was to examine our effluents, what spilled into the waterways,” he says. “I came up with three plans. One was the right one, one was OK, and one was bad. I was disheartened when they chose the bad one, dumping it at night when no one could see it.”
Now 70, fit and tanned, he wears Lacoste shirts and dock shoes. But while he lives the good life, a part of him carries that spark ignited and fanned at Woodstock.