Then-cub journalists recall moon landing, Woodstock as breaking stories 50 years ago

By Robert A. Cohn & Dale Singer

Editor’s Note: With the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo 11 lunar mission and the Woodstock musical festival this summer, Jewish Light editorial writers Robert A. Cohn, 79, and Dale Singer, 70, take a break from crafting a traditional editorial to look back on these historic events and their impact.

Imagine an unprecedented historical event occurring without cable television, wall-to-wall internet coverage or social media to give us an outlet for sharing our feelings about what just occurred.

That’s how the world of news was in the summer of 1969, when first Apollo 11 landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong took his one small step for man, then a music festival became synonymous with what became known as the hippie era. 

Journalism technology and economics have changed. But journalism’s allure for people who like to ask questions about how the world works and then relay their findings to an eager audience remains as strong as ever. 

Here are recollections from two local veterans who began their careers about the same time 50 years ago, when Americans walked on the moon and rock fans gathered in a muddy field in upstate New York.

From Robert A. Cohn:  

Can this really be happening?

I was named editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light effective June 15, 1969. After working for five years right out of law school as a staff attorney, press secretary and speechwriter for St. Louis County Supervisor Lawrence K. Roos, I was recruited by my Washington University classmate and friend Michael N. Newmark, whose father, Melvin L. Newmark, was president of the Light board of trustees. 

I was persuaded to take the job for a two-year trial period as a stepping stone into practicing law or joining a public-relations firm.   

Then the moon walk happened.

At the time of the moon landing, my wife, Barbara, and I were living in an apartment in Overland. Good friends Marvin and Doris Lerner and their son Gary were guests in our home to watch the glorious landing. 

Our son Scott and Gary were just over a year old, but we wanted them to have etched in their memory the image of the moon landing. So we held our sons up to the TV screen for that magic moment. It was like the scene in “The Lion King” when Mufasa holds up his lion cub Simba as the future King of the Beasts.  

The lead editorial in the Light’s July 30 issue was headlined, “One Small Step …”  The editorial began:

“For centuries the moon has been the object of veneration for the major civilization of mankind. … Moon goddesses were worshipped by most ancient cultures. Love songs have been inspired by the moon, wolves have howled over it since time immemorial.”  

Moreover, the Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, and our major holidays and festivals occur after sundown.

The editorial went on to praise John F. Kennedy for “flatly declaring that the United States place a man on the moon within the decade.” The piece added:

“The success of Apollo 11 proves that single-minded determination and high priority can accomplish a goal at one time thought impossible. The same kind of raw courage and boldness will be needed to eliminate hunger, to rebuild our cities, to purify our atmosphere and to achieve peace. … Let us take that next giant leap for mankind.”

A few issues later, the Woodstock folk-rock festival was discussed on our editorial page in these terms:

“It has been fashionable until now to brush aside facts with the statement that only a ‘tiny minority’ of young people are involved [in the social upheaval that led to Woodstock]. … A whole new lifestyle is emerging in America, which could mean that we are on the verge of total moral collapse or that we are on the threshold of a spiritual renewal.”

I must confess that I thought to myself that in a period in which man was walking on the moon and members of my generation were celebrating “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” at Woodstock, here I was toiling in a cramped downtown office as editor of a small, Midwestern, Jewish newspaper —mild-mannered Bob Cohn, a kind of Jewish version of Clark Kent.

But being moonstruck and writing about Woodstock within the space of a few weeks taught me that journalism is never boring or predictable, and it has been the right career path for me. That was 50 years ago this month. 

I must like working at the Light, and I still do.

From Dale Singer:

In July 1969, I had just started my first professional journalism job, as a summer vacation fill-in reporter at the St. Louis bureau of United Press International (UPI). I had planned to go into journalism for years, writing for the newspapers at Hanley Junior High School and University City High School. Now, after my sophomore year at Washington University, I had contacted every local news-related business I could think of, trying to get a taste for the real thing.

Fifty years ago, outlets didn’t have formal internships as such, so I tried to follow up my letters — composed on a typewriter and sent through the U.S. mail, of course — with personal visits. When I went to the four-reporter UPI bureau in the Post-Dispatch building at 1133 Franklin Ave. — later 1133 Martin Luther King Dr., then 900 N. 12th St., and finally 900 N. Tucker Blvd. — I managed to impress the bureau chief enough to talk myself into a job.

Soon I was learning professional journalism lingo — the lede was the first paragraph of a story, my colleagues were Unipressers, and the split came around every hour, so we could send stories to local radio and TV clients. I also struggled with skills like teletype punching. It was intimidating and exhilarating at the same time, even working the 3-to-midnight shift.

By the time the moon landing came around, I held the exalted title of night bureau manager, which of course meant I was the only reporter working at night, managing no one but myself. My shifts generally included Sundays, when I reported in the early afternoon to provide copy for newspaper and broadcast clients.

On July 20, the dingy room was filled with the usual relentless, low-tech clackety clack of wire machines: the A wire, B wire, Missouri wire, Illinois wire, broadcast wire. But anticipation of the Apollo 11 landing heightened the usual tension. 

Occasionally, when a story of more than normal importance came across the wire, it was accompanied by bells: three for an urgent, five for a bulletin and 10 for that rarest of truly breaking news, a flash. 

That weekend saw an even rarer occurrence, three flashes: one when the lunar lander came to rest in the Sea of Tranquility, one when Armstrong set foot on the moon and a third when the lander took off again. The terse description of what was going on 240,000 miles away made the grainy TV pictures somehow seem more real.

I was still working at UPI when Woodstock occurred the following month, but it hardly registered as I went about my daily journalism routine. 

The Post-Dispatch building was my professional home until 2008, and my life as a reporter changed dramatically in many ways, but it remained as interesting and fulfilling as ever.

And I don’t think I ever heard 10 bells again.

Jewish Light Editor-in-Chief Emeritus Robert A. Cohn and Dale Singer began their journalism careers in 1969, the same year as the Apollo 11 mission to the moon and Woodstock. Singer worked for United Press International (UPI) and Cohn began his long tenure at the Jewish Light.