Gordon Beck had been travelling across Europe in his Volkswagon and doing freelance work for a newspaper in London when a telegram came from Montreal with an interesting offer: would he like to be one of 13 photographers to document Expo 67?
Needing to be in Montreal in two weeks, he found the closest freighter he could — an old Second World War ship steaming from Portsmouth to New York — loaded his Volkswagon aboard, endured a storm at sea that caused a two-day delay and eventually made his way back to the city in time for opening day.
“I got there in one piece and hit the ground running,” Beck, a former Montreal Gazette photographer, said on Saturday as he recalled his six-month stint shooting Expo 67.
Around midnight the day before, the world exposition was set to open to the public — this Thursday will mark 50 years since then — Beck remembers taking the Expo Express train from the media centre to Île-Ste-Hélène and toward the Canadian pavilion, where workers were still scrambling to lay down grass and put last minute touches on the site.
He had his doubts about it being finished for the next morning, but was impressed to see it was ready-to-go by sunrise.
The next six months were “sheer bliss” and a bit of a blur — “fermented and distilled ambrosia,” Beck called it — as him and the other photographers spent days racing around the different pavilions and nights rubbing shoulders with celebrities and sports figures at parties.
The next memory that stands out is him driving a golf cart around the site the day Expo 67 was closing, wondering where the last six months had gone as he watched maintenance workers erect large announcement boards thanking people for their visit and asking them to leave.
“It was an amazing period,” Beck, now 75, said. “In my life and in the lives of many people.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 this week, the city of Montreal is offering a free passport that grants residents and tourists access to 14 continuing or coming events celebrating the exposition throughout the city.
As of Wednesday, the Stewart Museum on Île-Ste-Hélène will be hosting Expo 67 — A World of Dreams, an exhibition looking back at the “big dreams and innovative spirit” of Expo 67.
From April 22 to May 6, city hall is hosting an exhibit of photos showing how the city looked in the 1960s — including during Expo 67— and on Thursday, the Biosphere will launch an exhibit showcasing the environmental legacy of Expo 67.
A dozen other commemorative events are slated to start as of May and last through the fall. The full list of events can be found on the city of Montreal’s 375th anniversary website, www.375mtl.com. A commemorative paper edition of the passports will be available in participating businesses as of April 28. An electronic version can be found on the city’s 375 MTL app.