Kesey’s Rootedness Deserves a Place Name

The city of Eugene has added seven permanent residents to its downtown in the past decade, but four of them need a home with a better name.

First came Eugene Skinner, hat in hand, seated on a rock outside the Eugene Public Library. Then came Ken Kesey at Broadway and Willamette, reading a book to three unnamed youngsters. We’ve since added Rosa Parks, stoic sitter for justice at the LTD station, and a young Japanese American woman, seated on internment-camp-bound suitcases near the Hult Center.

How relaxed a place is Eugene? All our city’s statues are seated.

Yet each stands for the same ideal: not loud or big, but strong and deep.

When something gets set in stone — or in this case, bronze — it’s worth the trouble to look back and consider one special case.

Peter Heizer’s sculpture of Ken Kesey the story teller was added to our downtown plaza in 2003. For seven years, those three children have listened in rapt attention to whatever the suspendered Kesey is reading from that book. They haven’t moved a muscle.

Others have joined those four on that bench, to snap a photo or just to rest their feet. Festivals have sprouted around them. Sidewalk preachers have competed for attention. Protesters have drawn police Tasers. Mini-restaurants surrounded them. We’ve debated who should control all the seating except theirs.

Those spots on that bronze bench have stayed open to anyone. Skateboarders haven’t learned to test gravity from it. The city hasn’t needed to guard it or protect it. No instructions for acceptable behavior have been spray painted on its perimeter.

Day by day, the voice of Ken Kesey’s stories and the story of Ken Kesey have gotten louder.

Some objected when the sculpture was unveiled that the grandfatherly Kesey wasn’t acknowledging the mark he’d made on a generation. Yes, he worked in a mill, but no, that’s not who we knew. We knew a man who should have inspired the first bronze tie-dye.

But others who did know the man expressed gratitude and approval that the statue was defiantly not “on point.” Anyone who ever tried to keep Ken Kesey on point had to admit that the man was wider — if not larger — than the legend he helped to create.

Kesey always kept his name listed in the phone book for a reason. He wasn’t afraid of people. His hand-to-hand wrestling prowess transferred fully to the world of ideas. He refused to disengage, and nostalgia is good only for that. His rootedness in this place has been affirmed since his death in 2001 by the family he left behind.

Three weeks ago, his nephew Kit, his sister-in-law Sue, and his son Zane each had a role at the Eugene Celebration.

The Kesey portrayed is defiantly a family man, reading to the next generation, and to the generation after that. Time has proved his defiance correct.

That corner he calls home is transforming. Voodoo Donuts has a line out its door. The Centre Court Building renovation by BEAM Development is nearing the point of no return. Viable projects are being designed by Rob Bennett for the pit on Willamette Street and by Steve Masters for the northwest corner.

Things are looking up for the center of downtown Eugene. Quickly, before there’s a new success that will make everything more difficult, can we get that place officially renamed for Kesey? Eugene City Council in the late 1990s gave it an official name, but history is forgiving. Nobody remembers to call it the Broadway Willamette Plaza anymore.

People call it Kesey Plaza, but that sounds like a compromise, including the least useful part of its given name. Kesey Commons would better acknowledge his view of shared spaces and the root of their value. Kesey Corners would celebrate his compelling personality — give him one corner and watch the other three gravitate to his orbit. Kesey Square would delight those with an ear for irony.

Can we please make it official?

Wayne Morse’s statue stands on Lane County land near the Park Blocks, and he’s got plenty of namesakes. Kesey deserves as much.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) once called Ken Kesey at home to ask him to write Jerry Garcia’s obituary for the Comic News. Kesey did it.