BY STEVEN JUPITER
BRANDON — You may have noticed Dorothy Niss on one of her walks around Brandon. She cuts a striking figure with her wavy white mane and brisk, determined gait. At 78, Dorothy still logs several miles per day.
But while the goal is to stay physically active, she’s always willing to stop and chat. She’s met a lot of people in town this way and if you talk with her long enough, you’ll learn that she’s a retired school librarian originally from Worcester, Massachusetts.
If you leave it there, and continue on with your day, you’ll probably assume that Dorothy has led a quiet life surrounded by books and the feathers she collects on her walks.
But probe a bit further, ask a few more questions about her background, and you’ll discover she used to party with Abbie Hoffman and staffed the medical tent at Woodstock, easing people down off their bad acid trips. As your jaw drops, she’ll simply smile like it’s no big deal.
She was born in 1943, in Worcester, into a family of conservative Irish Catholics. Her parents sent her to parochial school, which she loathed, and by the time she was a teenager it was clear she wasn’t ever going to fit into the square world she was being jammed into.
The eldest of four, she had “frosty relations” with her father, an optometrist who was proud of his service in WWII and who had a hard time accepting that his oldest child was out demonstrating with peaceniks like Abbie Hoffman as the anti-war movement of the 1960s was heating up.
Dorothy is pretty sure somewhere in her apartment here on Brandon’s Park Street she still has the peace symbol Hoffman gave her early in their friendship, years before his notoriety as one of the Chicago Seven.
After graduating from Clark University in Worcester in the mid-60s, Dorothy worked as a proofreader of medical textbooks, taught high school in Vermont, eloped to Florida with a soldier she met skiing (“we got tired of each other after a year and a half”), and moved back to Massachusetts to get her teaching credentials and a degree in library science.
By the time Woodstock was announced in 1969, Dorothy was living in Amherst, Mass., next to a musician who suggested they go to the festival because “it looked good and wasn’t too far away.” She had no idea how important the event would become in American cultural history. To her and her friends, it was just a music festival like so many others taking place all over the country in those days.
So she and her neighbor hopped on his motorcycle and headed to upstate New York.
As they approached the venue, a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., Dorothy started getting a sense that this wasn’t going to be just another concert: So many people were flocking to the spot that the roads were backed up for miles. People eventually gave up and just left their cars on the highway to walk the remaining distance.
Because they were on two wheels instead of four, Dorothy and her pal bypassed the traffic and she’s now able to drop nonchalantly into conversation that she arrived at Woodstock on the back of a motorcycle. Entry was $5/day and included nothing but the music.
They’d brought sleeping bags and ate bread and soup from the makeshift food tents that popped up in the muddy fields. All in all, roughly 400,000 people spent three days together listening to some of the most iconic acts of all time: Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix; the Grateful Dead; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; The Who…to name just a few. Dorothy even recalls The Who’s set getting interrupted by an onstage tussle between Pete Townshend and Abbie Hoffman at 5 a.m.
Before long, Dorothy found herself volunteering in the festival’s medical tent. People were showing up all freaked out from their first-ever doses of LSD, many of which had been slipped into beverages and taken unknowingly. Having had positive experiences dropping “pure” acid with Hoffman and Timothy Leary (a former Harvard professor and an early proponent of LSD who popularized the hippie slogan “turn on, tune in, drop out,”) Dorothy felt an immediate obligation to help these panicked folks stay calm as the effects of the drug wore off, all while acts like Joplin and Jefferson Airplane performed live in the background.
Asked which of the acts were her favorites, she mentions Creedence, a band called Mountain, and Joplin, who “felt every note she sang.” She also observes with a shrug and a chuckle that many of her freaked-out “patients” seemed to get worse when Joe Cocker was on stage.
She left Woodstock the way she arrived: clutching a sleeping bag on the back of a motorcycle.
Dorothy is both proud of her experience and amused by people’s continued interest in it. On the cusp of 80, she still delights in revealing that chapter of her life to new acquaintances because — “let’s face it” — many people who were there are no longer with us.
Though she never anticipated the status the event now holds in American culture, she understands what it represents for many who weren’t even alive at the time: an irreproducible opportunity to hear legendary performers with other free-spirited people in a unique setting that wasn’t obnoxiously commercial.
There was no “merch,” no overpriced beer, no corporate sponsorships. It was a muddy field where hundreds of thousands of people came together for three rainy days to experience something historic that would forever brand them as cool.
And our neighbor Dorothy Niss was among them.