Fifty years ago, Glen Williams, along with an estimated 600 million other people around the globe, watched, transfixed, as a television screen showed Apollo 11 touching down on the moon.
Williams was 15 at the time, living in south suburban Riverdale. He was crazy about astronomy, and the moon landing, which he watched with his mom, dad and two sisters, was an enormous, life-changing event.
“I remember there was a lot of apprehension,” Williams said. “I remember thinking, ‘OK, they have to take off again from the moon. What if that goes wrong? What if they’re stuck there?’ That would have been terrible.”
There was tremendous excitement, too. A sense of unity embraced the nation. Tens of thousands of people gathered in New York’s Central Park to watch gigantic television screens. Cheers erupted in living rooms and bars and airports and parks across the country when Neil Armstrong took his first, powdery steps.
The day of the landing, July 20, 1969, the Chicago Daily News included a note to readers regarding the following day’s newspaper. It would be a historic edition, editors noted, filled with coverage of the landing: How it went. Who watched. How they reacted. What it all meant.
The note offered instructions on how to preserve that history-recording newspaper as a keepsake, should readers be so inclined.
Edna Williams, mother of Glen Williams, was so inclined.
“She was doing it more for me,” said Williams, now 65 and a professor of physics and astronomy at Central Michigan University.
Together, mother and son gathered the Sunday evening paper (the Chicago Daily News was an afternoon daily) and followed the prompts.
“We got a cotton sheet and rolled it up in that,” Williams said. “Then we wrapped it in aluminium foil and put a layer of plastic over that.”
They covered the whole thing in thick, clear packing tape and labelled it: MOON LANDING JULY 21, 1969.
The newspaper sat in a dresser drawer at Edna Williams’ Riverdale home until 1978, when she retired and moved to Arkansas. She brought the newspaper with her. She passed away four years ago, and Glen Williams has held onto the paper in his central Michigan home ever since.
As the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approached, he thought about opening it.
“I told Karen, it just seemed like if it was just the two of us opening it at home it would be anticlimactic,” he said. (Karen is his wife.) “After 50 years, we wanted to share it with somebody else.”
They e-mailed a Tribune editor and offered to drive to Chicago and open it inside the newsroom. The Daily News ceased production in 1978, so the Tribune newsroom would have to do. (Besides, Williams wasn’t altogether sure which newspaper he and his mom wrapped up for safe keeping. He just knew that it came to the house each day.)
The Williams’ grown sons, 29 and 31, live near O’Hare. They’d make a two-day visit out of it.
On Friday, we gathered in a conference room for the big reveal. I brought my son, who wanted to read how the Cubs were doing on July 21, 1969. A photographer and videographer captured the unwrapping.
“My best hope is it will look like a brand new paper,” Williams said, as he unfurled the plastic, then foil, then cotton sheet.
Glen Williams saved a Chicago Daily News from July 21, 1969, and brought it to the Chicago Tribune newsroom to open for the first time in 50 years. Williams joined Heidi Stevens on July 19, 2019, in the newsroom and unwrapped the 50-year-old paper.
The newsprint had browned a bit, but it remained in excellent condition. The ink still came off on our fingers as we paged through the stories and photos and ads and opinion pieces.
The Sunday paper cost 10 cents. A frozen pizza went for $1.49. Cartons of ice cream were five for $1. A colour television from Marshall Field’s would set you back $900.
Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the US Congress, had just endorsed John Lindsay’s re-election bid for mayor of New York City. Sen. Ted Kennedy was facing questions about the death of 28-year-old Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in Kennedy’s car who died when Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge.
The Cubs just beat the Phillies in a double-header, 1-0 and 6-1.
On the op-ed page, Sydney J Harris wrote a piece headlined, The ‘love it or leave it’ nonsense.
“One of the most ignorant and hateful statements that a person can make to another is, ‘If you don’t like it here, why don’t you leave?’ ” Harris wrote. “Most people who want to change conditions do like it here: they love it here. They love it so much they cannot stand to see it suffer from its imperfections, and want it to live up to its ideals. It is the people who placidly accept the corruptions and perversions and inequities in our society who do not love America.”
Still haven’t resolved that one, have we.
Mostly, though, that Sunday paper was filled with the moon. The entire front and back page were taken up by the moon landing. The front-page story was datelined, Tranquility Base, THE MOON.
Inside, stories captured the mood around the country and the world as observers grappled with one of humankind’s greatest feats.
A photo of Pope Paul VI witnessing the landing filled one page. There was a photo of soldiers in Vietnam huddled around a radio. “Faces painted with grease, US Rangers listen to an Apollo 11 radio broadcast,” read the caption.
Mike Royko penned a lovely column, Other walks need walking.
“I’d like to see a black man walk through the Back of the Yards, Gage Park or Cicero without being forced to flee for his life,” Royko wrote.
“Come the first day of school in September, I’d like to see all the kids in all the big cities walk into their classrooms to a decent education.”
“When gravely sick poor people walk into a hospital, let them get the same treatment and kindness that is afforded to rich people who are there to get a nose job or just take a rest.”
“The diplomats,” he wrote, “should walk into the peace talks like they are dealing with flesh and blood, not dealing a crooked card game.”
“When people start taking some of these walks, history will do more than stagger; it will do a dance of joy.”
I asked Williams if he talks to his students about the moon landing.
“We talk about things that have been discovered about the moon from a lot of the rocks that were brought back by Apollo,” he said. “They’ve given us a lot of insight into the history of the moon.”
It’s lovely to think about that long-ago exercise between a mother and a son, carrying into today, 50 years later. The mother no longer with us, the son sharing his love of astronomy with college kids. (And a journalist. And her son.)
I’m so grateful to Williams for his history lesson — about the moon, and about humankind.
Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats. — Chicago Tribune/TNS
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