November 10, 2001 was a sad day in Eugene, Oregon. It was a sad day everywhere. To some it was a moment in time. To many, it was the end of an era. Literary scholars and aged hippies mourned together in sorrow. A cultural icon, a counterculture revolutionary had passed on: Ken Kesey, 66, most notably recognized as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene. The cause of death was said to be due to complications after liver cancer surgery.
Kesey, although well known as the male protagonist in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, symbolized more than an age of free love and LSD trips. He questioned the authorities and encouraged creativity. He inspired generations of writers and freethinkers. He coached high school wrestling and raised four children. He created a counterculture. He made people think.
Though he helped open minds and liberate souls throughout the world, Kesey was arguably the most influential in his own hometown. His ideas and viewpoints were an essential part of the fabric used to create the vibrant tapestry of today’s Eugene. “He was definitely a magnet that brought people to this town,” said Tom Gerald, Book Events Coordinator at the University of Oregon Bookstore. Gerald had met and worked with Kesey several times at various book conventions throughout the state and country.
Speaking on behalf of the Eugene community, “I think we all would be different without the presence of Ken Kesey in our lives,” said Gerald. During the 1960s as Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters traveled the country in a 1939 International Harvest school bus, he inevitably and unknowingly laid the foundation to an era of drug-induced reality and creative genius.
People who had never visited Oregon in their lives moved to Eugene to become part of the counterculture that Kesey had created. In a September interview with Chez Ray, former road chef for the Grateful Dead, he told BootsnAll that his decision to move to Eugene was because of Ken Kesey. He too wanted to “share the experience.” Although perhaps the most famous, Ray was certainly not the only one to relocate in this Emerald City because of the notorious Merry Prankster.
At his funeral on November 14, the community of Eugene showed their appreciation and admiration for the famous writer and cultural icon with a thoughtful and “Kesey-style” farewell. The memorial service was held at the 750-seat McDonald Theater in downtown Eugene. Too small to house all who wished to pay their respects; people flooded into the streets and listened over loudspeakers. Kesey was praised on a stage adorned with vibrant and clashing colors. The song “And We Bid You Good Night,” by the Grateful Dead served to sanction his passing.
Dave Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon, was one of Kesey’s several close friends who spoke at the service. He paid tribute to Kesey for his sense of humor and quick wit. As a graduate of the U of O himself, Kesey was an avid and longtime fan of the Ducks, the school’s Pac 10 football team. His freshman year, Kesey even played for the Ducks until he switched sports and joined the wrestling team.
In all aspects of his life and his works, Kesey has had an indescribable effect on the shaping of Eugene. Without him, this city would not still be the thriving counterculture that is today. His presence, although tangibly missed, will forever be felt within the Eugene community and the heart of the mid Willamette Valley.
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