October 6, 2008, marks the 40th anniversary of the closing of HemisFair ‘68. I plan for this essay to be the first of a series about HemisFair. In ‘68, I had just graduated from Texas Tech, and started training for my position as Bi-Lingual Official Guide that January. I have great memories and I remember so many excellent, and eye-opening, events.
The fair was characterized as a “Jewel Box.” Our attendance was strong, and everyone was charmed by the fabulous foreign, domestic, and artistic pavilions. We had an international food court, water-skiing in the lake, daily parades and a myriad of unique events. Remarkable shows were the Bolshoi Ballet, Fiddler on the Roof, Verdi’s opera, Don Carlo, Ray Charles, and many more.
All of San Antonio had been spruced up and striking modern architecture built, such as the Tower of the Americas, the Hilton Palacio del Rio, the Lila Cockrell Theatre, Arena, and a convention center. The River Walk was updated and expanded. As a direct result of HemisFair, San Antonio emerged as a serious tourist and conference destination. However, I think it would be a good idea to set the stage to help us remember what was going on back in 1968. Even though the fair was a huge success, attracting lots of attention and promoting San Antonio worldwide, we weathered a number of challenging and serious events. One reason I choose to recount these is because there are a number of striking parallels today. San Antonio’s fair was such a bright spot at home and abroad. But during early days, there were a couple of events that put a pall on our celebrations. Firstly, Martin Luther King Jr. fell on April 4th, just 2 days before the opening of the fair, and then Robert Kennedy died also, on June 5th. While everyone was subdued and hearts were broken, we employees had to pull ourselves together, and try to divert everyone’s attention and to make everyone happy.
Originally, our fair was going to run for a year, but Mexico launched a strong protest because the 1968 Summer Olympics were to be held in Mexico City. The Olympics were to start in October and they did not want to be eclipsed by our event. Since the focus of HemisFair was “Confluence of Civilizations in the Americas,” with Mexico as a major force, our closing was moved to October.
On the political front, there was a presidential election. Strong Democratic candidates were Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. Serious Republican candidates included George Wallace, Nelson Rockefeller, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and George Romney. Several of these politicos and their families visited the fair, including Hubert Humphrey, John and Nellie Connally, Nelson Rockefeller, and even Spiro Agnew! Our First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, visited a number of times.
On the international front, we had an unpopular war with no end in sight, in Viet Nam, with anti-war protests. Russia had invaded Czechoslovakia, just as they did in Georgia recently. At the time, we faced problems such as racism, immigration, equal rights and poverty. Even so, in the U.S., progressive movements were cropping up, young people were energized, and there was much optimism.
Now that I have set the stage, I promise that the next article in this series will be much more upbeat. After all, I mostly remember being employed as a 22 year old at HemisFair’68 as the best time of my entire life.