Ken Kesey died yesterday at the very young age of 66 in my home town of Eugene, Oregon. (I've been trying to link the local paper's obit, but they like to hold their news an extra day. Here's the closest, in the Oregonian (Portland).)
I can't say that Kesey had a huge impact on my life except through interpretation: the idea of Kesey loomed larger than the works of Kesey. He did, however, give the commencement address at my high school graduation.
Those of you who know me may not be surprised that I was senior class president. I ran under a banner of "No Rhetoric" (I was sick of stupid slogans, and trying to be ironic) and got twice as many votes as the No. 2 candidate. My vice president, a good friend, resigned mid-year as he didn't feel capable of carrying out the duties and responsibilities of that role. Which were very very few, as I recall. But it was honest of him.
The newly elected (or appointed?) veep was involved with me in some of the graduation planning. He suggested a CEO of a successful local company to speak. If I remember history right, I said, wait a minute. We're looking for someone great, not just another company president who would be fine. Ken Kesey's son died in a car accident a couple of years ago, and he's been in some seclusion. He might be willing to speak in public again. Let's call him.
I can't remember who called him; maybe our principal, a smooth-talking, purple cowboy boot wearing fellow (our school colors: purple and white). Kesey said yes. When the program was being prepared, we saw the title of his address: Something about dropping kicking ourselves through the goalposts of life. I found out later that Kesey had been a star athlete in his college days.
I don't remember the speech at all. Not a word. I'd given my address, as well as played accompaniment on piano for one of the songs. The first and last time I ever performed on the piano in public. (I had had to get to school at about 6.30 am all year for student government class which didn't start until 7.15. I was taking mostly theater senior year as I'd completed all my academic requirements, and had a 30-minute bus ride commute each way, so wasn't sitting around with homework to do. So I taught myself how to play piano by practicing for 30 minutes or so every morning.)
Kesey came out in what I recall as a white suit. He gave a wonderful, engrossing speech. But I couldn't remember a single syllable. In those days, I'm not sure the videography thing was as big a deal; I don't have a tape of graduation. Kesey was only about 51 at that point, but I thought of him as ancient and mythological.
Years later, I ran into Don DeWitt, my AP English teacher senior year. Don was beloved by a lot of the class, and we had asked him to read names at graduation, which was seen as an honor. He leapt into the role, wearing white tails. Don had been called up by a local radio station which was running a 10-year-ago music special, and they were doing "class of 86" bits in between. Don recalled for them an incident he'd forgotten in the interim: that when he was standing backstage with Kesey after my talk, Kesey said, "That was a smart speech." It made me happy to hear that backwards and forwards in time.
My dad used to be in a natural foods group (when he sold granola) with Kesey's sister-in-law, Sue, who runs Nancy's in Springfield, the next town over from Eugene. They make the wonderful yogurt found all over the Northwest. We always thought of Kesey as a local tradition. He'd grown up there, returned there, had his roots there. It's hard to believe that we've lost the rest of his insight.