In Glassboro, NJ, celebrating the 50th anniversary of a historic conversation

When the leaders of the world’s two nuclear superpowers met on June 23, 1967, in a town few outside South Jersey had heard of, global tensions were rising, America was becoming divided, and fear of annihilation by the forces of a malevolent ideology haunted our dreams.

Nevertheless, people in Glassboro and at Glassboro State College, which hosted the summit between President Lyndon Johnson and Russian Premier Aleksei Kosygin, together created a hospitable, festive, and patriotic atmosphere that bathed the three-day event in goodwill.

Local folks put up with the disruptions — traffic tie-ups, encounters with the Secret Service, questions from the reporters who were all over the place — with equanimity.

The summit meeting between Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin and President Lyndon B. Johnson drew crowds on June 23, 1967, in Glassboro. (Provided by Rowan University)

“We were a small town, and people here wanted something good to happen at the summit, We wanted to help the country,” recalls Mayor Leo McCabe, 84, then a refinery research manager raising three young children in Glassboro.

“Everybody was on board,” says Leila DeEugenio, who graduated from Glassboro High School in 1967; her husband’s family changed the name of their venerable Glassboro business to “Summit City Farms” after the LBJ-Kosygin meeting.

Last week, I visited the pleasant Gloucester County borough of 19,000, where the Summit name adorns an assisted-living facility on Route 322, a housing complex being built downtown,  and a street in an over-55 community called the Village Grande at Camelot. There’s a Summit City Farms and Winery, too.

“The summit put us on the map,” says Fred Tartaglione, owner of Tag’s Auto Supply on High Street, who is one of many around town who remember when Glassboro briefly became the epicenter of global affairs.

As well as a focus of media attention: Nick L. Petroni’s family home was adjacent to Hollybush, the glassworks magnate Thomas Whitney’s 19th-century mansion. Hollybush became the site of the summit, and the Petronis’ house became the Associated Press operations center.

Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin (left) and President Lyndon B. Johnson at their 1967 summit meeting in Glassboro. The two met at the Hollybush mansion on the grounds of the former Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. (Provided by Rowan University)

 

The AP set up a darkroom in the basement and a newsroom in a first-floor office; Nick Petroni’s mother made and served sandwiches to the newshounds.

“I was 18 and the AP asked me if I wanted to be a photo runner,” says Petroni, an accountant who has several hefty albums of summit photos and memorabilia in his High Street office.

“I got press credentials on the [spot]. It was surreal,” he adds, describing the atmosphere in and around Glassboro on those three days as “hopeful … that something good would come out” of the summit.

“There was a sense of pride that we had been chosen for this,” says longtime resident Thomas Gallia, 73, who retired in 2014 after a career of more than 40 years at what is now Rowan University.

“At the time, antiwar protests were going on all over,” he recalls. “I didn’t see any protests [during the summit], but I did see a sign that said, ‘Welcome Grandpa.’ LBJ had just become a grandfather.”

At Summit City Farms Winery — it did not exist in 1967 but will be among the stops on a tour during the anniversary celebration — a vintage banner proclaiming Glassboro the “Summit Town” hangs in a function room.

“Younger people don’t realize how stressful the Cold War was,” says manager Jim Johnson, who is 67 and grew up in Glassboro. “We were in the heart of the ‘duck and cover’ era.”

His reference to the self-protection procedure a cartoon turtle taught us boomers when we were growing up in the 1950s and ’60s reminds me of how frightened we really were of a nuclear attack.

But while the summit didn’t yield a new treaty or a dramatic announcement, the face-to-face conversations between Johnson and Kosygin helped defuse tensions between the two sides.

LBJ himself spoke glowingly of the “spirit of Hollybush”; some historians regard the Glassboro conversations as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

So it’s fitting that the summit’s 50th anniversary celebration will be an upbeat affair.

“We’re going to have events from noon to 4 on Saturday, June 24,” says Lavon Phillips, borough director of public relations and business development.

Tours of Hollybush, “summit stories” by those who were there, a 1960s car display, performances of period music, and, in the evening, a “Spirit of Hollybush” dinner are being jointly presented by the borough and Rowan,

The former Glassboro State College has become a respected university and has grown from 3,500 to 17,000 students in the last half century; Rowan also is a partner in the construction of an impressive cluster of mixed-use developments along Rowan Boulevard and elsewhere in the heart of the borough.

“This was not an [institution] that was on the map in this country” in 1967,  university president Ali A. Houshmand says from his campus office. “There is no doubt that the summit had a tremendous amount of influence … long term, incrementally … on the trajectory [that brought] this university to where it is today.”

If he had an opportunity to host a summit between President Trump and Vladimir Putin, Houshmand — who grew up in Iran — tells me he would “tell them that the world more than ever before needs [their] leadership to save itself” from destruction, particularly by “non-state actors” involved in terrorism.

“I would say, it is incumbent on the two of you to sit down … because the enemies [on the outside] are far more dangerous to both of us, and it is time to sit down and truly and realistically, for the good of human civilization, figure out ways we can move forward.”

Johnson and Kosygin on the steps of Hollybush on the Glassboro State College campus. (Provided by Rowan University)

Elsewhere on campus, Lori Marshall was having a busy week. The assistant vice president of university relations and unofficial steward of Rowan’s extensive collection of photographs, documents, correspondence, film, and memorabilia about the summit, she grew up a block away from Hollybush.

Only 4 in 1967, Marshall says that spending many recent hours in the archives has impressed upon her the wisdom of Johnson’s quote about the clarifying impact of looking a person — especially an adversary — in the eye and having a frank discussion.

To a Cold War kid who vividly remembers fallout shelters and mushroom clouds, that alone is reason for Glassboro, Rowan, and the rest of us to celebrate.