Put Kesey Square in the Center of the Universe

Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis took a page this week from Robert Kimmitt, a U.S. Army general and George W. Bush’s deputy treasury secretary.

Kimmitt wrote to his fellow West Point graduates: “Trying to achieve consensus … must be avoided at all cost. Divergent opinions and conflicting analyses should be tolerated, listened to, and even encouraged.” Consensus, he argued, encourages groupthink and punishes strong ideas.

“Milquetoast” refers to neither milk nor toast, at least not directly. Cartoonist H. T. Webster created Caspar Milquetoast for his 1924 strip, “The Timid Soul.” His inference was clear. If consensus was demanded for a breakfast choice, the solution would satisfy no one.

Vinis saw that consensus would not satisfy anyone. Broadway-Willamette Plaza — a true milquetoast solution — should be renamed Ken Kesey Square. It’s already how people describe the square. It’s time for leaders to follow.

That doesn’t mean we can’t also encourage divergent opinions. City Councilor Mike Clark has recommended genericizing the name to “Authors Square.” The committee voted 7-2 to recommend the Kesey Square name. The city council will receive the recommendation at a work session on October 18.

I proposed the oxymoronic “Ken Kesey Square” name in a column I wrote for this space 14 years ago, just days after the statue was dedicated. But I also believe that strong ideas must be fostered in our community. Milk AND toast would be ideal. Dissenting voices must be “tolerated, listened to, and even encouraged.”

In 1996, as publisher of the Comic News, I disparaged the place-holder name given to that corner. “Broadway-Willamette Plaza,” I complained two decades ago, “sounds like a strip mall.” I liked better one of the unchosen monikers: “The Center of the Universe.”

I see today an opportunity to embrace two also-ran place-name suggestions. Let’s widen our conversation and embrace those ideas. Pete Helzer’s statue could stake Kesey’s claim as first among equals. Kesey would be happy to find himself in the larger context of the region’s creativity. All we would need is three dozen brass circles embedded in the bricks.

Start with a circle in the center of the intersection of Broadway and Willamette Street. (Wherever the center of the universe actually is, I hope it’s marked with four-way stop signs.) Use this center point as a surveyor’s pin to locate everything else.

Eugene has 23 recognized neighborhood associations. Each neighborhood has its own geographic or cultural center. Each of these neighborhoods would be marked by its own brass circle, in the correct direction and proportionate distance from the center point. Each neighborhood association would choose a local author and a quote to be engraved on their marker.

Farther out from these circles would be eleven more, also sited by direction and distance, one for each of the other incorporated cities in Lane County. They too would be asked to choose an author and a quote to be embedded in this walkable map of our town and county. (It doesn’t hurt that Kesey’s farm in Pleasant Hill is southeast of Eugene.)

In a way that the Merry Pranksters would appreciate, the brass circles would encourage exploratory wandering, forcing the daily bustle to slow down a bit. Most people in a hurry have given little thought to where their haste will take them. Paying attention is not an obstacle to freneticism; it’s the cure.

Three dozen authors would in this way be immortalized, Ken Kesey among them. We also would be honoring whoever first suggested the place could be called The Center of the Universe. And we’d be building on another successful scale model that has been loved in Eugene since 1990.

Jack Van Dusen championed a scale model of the solar system that originates in Alton Baker Park to show his son Ben how big it all is. The model is one billionth the size of the solar system, siting Pluto more than three miles away. This scale model of Eugene’s neighborhoods and Lane County’s cities would do the same — teaching everyone about this place that Ken Kesey never stopped calling home.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.