On July 20, 1994 for the 25th anniversary, we took a look back at what was happening in Oak Park during the voyage of Apollo XI. Now we thought we’d look back at that look back:

What a summer, 1969! … Stonewall, Chappaquiddick, Woodstock, the Miracle Mets (unfortunately for Cubs fans) … and, of course, the lunar landing. Just after 9:56 p.m. Central time, on July 20, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, saying, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Since then, most of us who witnessed it have never looked up at the moon in quite the same way again.

While all that history was being made up in space, what was happening down here?

Oak Park’s Dwight Follett, president of the Follett textbook company, watched the Apollo XI launch on July 16 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He was with a group that actually received a briefing by the astronauts and NASA officials before blastoff.

Three villagers worked on the moon project: Harold J. Clancy, 624 N. East Ave., was project engineer for astronaut training; Robert A. Benson, 232 N. Harvey Ave., was an aerospace technologist; and Donald E. Stullken, 1543 N. Monroe Ave., River Forest, was chief of the recovery operation in the “lunar landing division.”

Meanwhile, Bye Bye Birdie opened at Oak Park and River Forest High School with 60 students participating in the musical. 

Five areas in Oak Park were singled out as needing increased code enforcement to prevent “blight” and to eliminate the “spread of slum conditions” in the community. These areas were cited as having at least 20 percent code violations: Roosevelt Road, Harrison Street from Austin to Ridgeland, Maple Avenue from South Boulevard to Madison Street, Garfield Street from Home to Harlem avenues, and the 500 blocks of Lyman and Taylor avenues.

The high school announced it would be starting a program for “socially maladjusted” young people whose tested ability was “normal” but who were achieving two or three grade levels below what they should be.

Elsie Jacobsen, chair of the Beautification Committee, received a check for $750 from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation to be used to help defray the cost of renovating the Frank Lloyd Wright fountain plaza in Scoville Park at the corner of Lake Street and Oak Park Avenue.

The Jaycees held a “wildly popular” teen dance at the Ridgeland Common rink that drew over 2,000 young people. Disc jockey Dex Card and his Wild Goose Company introduced such hit groups as Rotary Connection, Spencer Davis, and The American Breed. Oak Park Police Chief Fremont P. Nester happily reported that there was “no trouble at all” during the gathering. Just like Woodstock!

Village Players presented an original play by Bob Wright called 54th and Hawaii at its Studio Theatre, 441 South Blvd. The cast included Miriam Albert, Audrey Erber, Ron Henry, and Elizabeth Moisant. 

River Forest police were looking for the person who buried 30 razor blades in the children’s sandbox in the playground at Central and Thatcher. The blades were discovered after two children had been cut. 

Oak Park park commissioners responded unfavorably to a request for land for low-rent housing for senior citizens. Members of the Senior Citizen Housing Corp., a nonprofit organization, wished to purchase land adjacent to Mills Park and the Mills House Senior Citizen Recreation Center (now called Pleasant Home). The proposed residential project would include 200 units.

The moon landing was celebrated widely and in various weird or fanciful ways. Baskin-Robbins, for instance, introduced a new flavor called “Lunar Cheesecake.”

“If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we …?” became a rallying cry for anything that was out of order (e.g. “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we build affordable housing for seniors?”)

Where were you?

Former village trustee Bill Fillmore was living in South Shore in July of ’69, close to the University of Chicago, where he was working toward a master’s degree in Social Service Administration. He watched the moonwalk alone in his apartment and found it “a very magical, unbelievable, exciting event.” Growing up in South Africa, Fillmore belonged to a very conservative, religious group and remembers having an argument with someone who insisted that God would never allow sinful human beings to pollute the moon by setting foot on it. 

“I said I didn’t think God would have a problem with it,” he recalled.

The former director of District 97’s Multicultural Education Department, Dolores Register, was teaching in the St. Louis public schools in ’69. She and her husband, Don, had a young child and another on the way, which may explain why she doesn’t have a clear memory of watching that night, but it still had an impact.

“I never thought it would happen,” she said. “It moved us into a new realm of existence. Our limited horizons had been stretched — opportunities for change and understanding more about the universe.”

Aggie Stempniak, former head of the Oak Park Area Regional Housing Center, was working for an advertising agency at the time. She was in Honolulu for a convention and her boss invited everyone to his hotel suite for the broadcast. He and his wife had already put their names on the astronaut waiting list, and his excitement was infectious. 

“I grew up with the Man in the Moon and green cheese,” Stempniak recalled. “This was quite exciting.”

Elsie Jacobsen, who was instrumental in saving the Oak Park Conservatory and starting the Historical Society of Oak Park-River Forest (among many other notable achievements), remembered that Sunday evening very clearly. They watched the broadcast from the home of her mother-in-law, whom she described as “an imported Norwegian.” She wasn’t buying it. She watched it, then proclaimed (in Norwegian), “It isn’t true, you know.” She died two years later in her 80’s, still skeptical. 

Sue Rizzo remembered it well because they had just purchased their first TV set, and this was “the first historical event where we felt like participants.” She was glad her 11-year-old son was able to see it and also the “feeling of togetherness” the occasion created.

And Doug Deuchler was working at a summer camp for inner-city kids from Cabrini-Green and surrounding settlement houses. They watched the moonwalk on an old black-and-white TV in the dining hall (the kids were skeptical), then sang moon songs around the campfire afterward. Walking through the woods, he remembers looking up at the moon and even he found it hard to believe that people were up there walking around.

But they were. They really were.

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Doug Deuchler

Doug Deuchler has been reviewing local theater and delving into our history for Wednesday Journal for decades. He is alsoa retired teacher and school librarian who is also a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent...