A world, and their lives, in transition
BY JENNIFER BARRIOS firstname.lastname@example.org
May 31, 2009
As Denise Maletta stepped forward to accept her high school diploma
at Copiague High School in 1969, she wondered whether she could hold
Just two days earlier, Maletta found out that her fiance, the son of
her high school principal, had been killed in Vietnam, and his best
friend had been killed there the day before.
She couldn't cry. Not then. Not in front of her fiance's father,
Walter O'Connell, who had defied expectations by appearing at the
graduation and now was standing on the stage, smiling at her.
Daniel O'Connell's body hadn't even been returned to his family, yet
here was his father, beckoning Maletta into a hug.
"In that moment, when he hugged me and we looked at each other, I
wanted to be strong for him because he was so strong for all of us,"
said Maletta 58, of Northport, whose maiden name was Fattarusso.
"That made it possible for me to get through that day. If he could
hold the line, so could I."
The Class of 1969 on Long Island entered adulthood at a seminal time
in American history. It was a time when 223 young Americans were
dying every week in Vietnam. But it was also a time for life -
marriage, music, college, careers.
"It was the age of the innocents," said Dona Cass-Lautin, who
graduated that year from Farmingdale High School. "Because you don't
know what's ahead. You never know what you're going to go on to, if
you're going on to college, or to work, or to war. You learn what reality is."
Reality was stark for the young men of the Class of 1969, many of
whom became eligible for the military draft once they graduated from
high school. That year has the second-highest number of U.S.
casualties in Vietnam: 11,616. Many in the class scrambled to get
college deferments to avoid the draft.
"There was always the worry that if you didn't excel in your
schoolwork and go to college, you would be next over there," said
Robert Raimondi, who attended what is today Farmingdale State College
after he graduated in 1969 from Farmingdale High School. "The
professors would tell you, 'If you don't make it here, you know where
you're going.' "
It was also a magical year for the Class of 1969, who gathered before
black-and-white televisions to watch the moon landing that summer and
to imagine a future where technology would push America into the
realm of the impossible.
"The moon landing was a big thing," said Judy Hopkins, 58, of East
Moriches, who went to Brentwood High School. "The whole country was
watching, and it was just an amazing thing to see. It was almost like
you were looking into the future."
It was a bittersweet day for Ellen Koven, who graduated from
Levittown Memorial High School in 1969. Her grandmother died on the
day of the moon landing.
"She was a Russian immigrant, old country. So it just seemed kind of
ironic that was the day she passed away," said Koven, 58, now of
Deltona, Fla. "The end of one generation, the beginning of a whole
While 1969 is synonymous with Woodstock in many people's minds, many
in Long Island's Class of 1969 didn't go; if their mothers didn't
stop them, then the monstrous traffic on the thruway upstate did.
"I did not go to Woodstock," said Koven. "But I always felt I was
part of the Woodstock generation and spirit. There was a real feeling
among my peers that we were going to change the world, and we were on
the cusp of something great. And the world felt like it was changing."
One such change was felt at Malverne High School, where in 1969
student protests and sit-ins led to a change in school policy.
Pamela Corbin remembers 1969 as the year she boycotted Malverne High School.
The school sat on Ocean Avenue - dubbed "the Mason-Dixon Line,"
because blacks lived east of it and whites lives west.
At the time, the school refused to teach black history, and it had
only two black teachers although blacks were 40 percent of the
On St. Patrick's Day, 1969, 137 students and parents were arrested at
the high school over the protests - sparked, Corbin said, by the
drama teacher's refusal to allow blacks to audition for the lead
roles in the school play.
Students held up their fists in the Black Power salute, and sang
gospel songs on the buses headed to the jail. Corbin ended up
boycotting school off and on for three months, instead attending a
"Freedom School" taught by Sunday school teachers at her church.
After the arrests, Malverne High School agreed to teach black history
and hire more black teachers.
"These are things I will never forget," Corbin said. "It was the most
exciting year of my young life. And it was a culmination of everything."