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He went to Woodstock in '69, and he's still there

Thursday, August 14, 2003

By Michael Hill, The Associated Press

BETHEL, N.Y. -- Duke Devlin was among the 400,000 people who converged on Max Yasgur's farm for three days of Woodstock in 1969. Unlike roughly 399,999 others, though, he never left.

Duke Devlin, 61, who ended up at Woodstock on a lark in 1969, now tells tourists what it was like at the legendary festival. (Jim McKnight, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

Visitors to the now-preserved hillside stand a fair chance of meeting Devlin, who resembles Santa Claus crossed with a Harley rider. Woodstock left a deep impression on Devlin, and he's taken it upon himself to tell tourists what it was like at the legendary festival, which went down 34 years ago tomorrow.

"It's like hearing it from the hippie's mouth," he explains.

Devlin, who turned 61 on Sunday, figures he stops by maybe five times a week, often on the way to and from his home six miles away.

On one recent perfect summer day, Devlin chats up a dozen visitors in about an hour. He shows an aerial picture to a trio of retirement-age visitors from Tennessee and makes small talk about Dolly Parton.

The guy looks at the photo and asks Devlin, "Where were you here?"

"I was so high," Devlin jokes, "I took the picture."

Later he gets photographed with visitors from Fort Lauderdale. Smiling at the camera, he tells them, "Give the peace sign, huh?" They all do.

In August '69, Devlin was a 27-year-old hippie living on a commune in the Texas panhandle, growing soybeans and sweet potatoes. He said OK when a friend asked him to go to Pennsylvania with him to visit a girlfriend because "in those days, longhairs were like nuns. You've got to travel in pairs."

The girlfriend wasn't there.

Alyssa Remy-Powers of Brattleboro, Vt., left, and Benji Friehling of White Lake, N.Y., lie in the fenced portion of the original site of Woodstock at Bethel, N.Y. Friehling, who lives nearby, complains that the Gerry Foundation, which owns the site, doesn't allow people to walk across the field, background, where the famous concert was held. (Jim McKnight, Associated Press)
Click photo for larger image.

Changes due at Woodstock

Like an old hippie with a haircut and a job, the Woodstock concert site seems downright respectable these days.

The sloshy mud of August 1969 is covered with grass as lush as a golf course, and the hillside is rimmed with split-rail fencing.

The not-for-profit foundation that owns the site is finishing up designs for a performing arts center. Ground could be broken as early as spring 2004 on an amphitheater that will sit just over the hill from the old concert stage. Plans also call for a smaller, year-round community theater and a visitor center that will include space for Woodstock-related exhibits.

The site was recently christened the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

But they decided to hitchhike north to a rock festival they heard about in New York's Catskills. Devlin imagined something ordinary, like bands playing at a drive-in.

What he experienced was three days of nonstop music, fun and camaraderie. He gave out oatmeal with sugar and raisins to the masses and rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.

After it was over, Devlin hung around to help pick up the mega-mess. Then, to save up enough money to leave, he got a job down the road milking cows. Then he made new friends. He grew fond of this countrified corner of New York.

Before he knew it, snow was falling. He never left.

Devlin eventually got married and helped run a farm stand for many years with his ex-wife. He landed a maintenance job with local schools. He has been in recovery for 23 years. And he has remained, at heart, a hippie.

Devlin worked with the media for the 1994 and 1999 Woodstock anniversary concerts as what he calls a "token hippie," providing an authoritative Aquarian voice for reporters.

But his lasting contribution to the Woodstock legacy might be volunteering as an interpretive guide at the concert site, which today is owned by the not-for-profit Gerry Foundation. The group plans to build a performing arts center up the hill by 2005.

Right now, a corner of the concert site is open to the public with a slab of a monument listing the original Woodstock performers. Devlin calls the monument the "tomb of the unknown hippie," and says people need more information. Devlin has hobnobbed with so many visitors, he has worn out at least seven laminated concert photographs.

Devlin says he's just doing what Yasgur did before he died in 1973. Bethel constable Ray Neuenhoff, another concert veteran who helps visitors, calls Devlin a historian performing "Woodstock duty."

Friendly with everybody, Devlin has ingratiated himself with Gerry Foundation officials and shared emcee duties for a 1999 concert at the Bethel site featuring Woodstock veterans Arlo Guthrie and Alvin Lee. He remembers seeing Lee -- whose inspired guitar performance at the '69 show stood out in Devlin's mind -- revisit the famous site.

"He looked like an old guy," Devlin says. "And he looked back at me and saw an old guy."

Yesterday's commune hopper is now a retired grandfather with a creaky back who has been to the site enough times to see countless photo snappers and guitar strummers. He has seen couples marry at the site and girls spread their fathers' ashes there.

But maybe the most meaningful visits are the one's he makes by himself, late in the day. Sometimes, just for an instant, it will all come back: the rain, the love, the sharing, the caring, the sense of community.

"You can actually smell it and feel it, maybe," he says. "I don't know what happens. It get this feeling like 'Wow!' and then once you've got it, it's gone."

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