I once asked a mutual friend if she could get me in touch with Ken Kesey. Her answer startled me. “Call him up,” she advised. “If he didn’t want people to call him, he’d have an unlisted number.” I pulled out a phone directory and there he was, for all to see. Ken Kesey was “in The Book” and remained there all his life. His name is still there, though he died two years ago.
As his widow Faye said at the dedication of Peter Helzer’s statue last Friday, “As a writer, Ken could live anywhere. But he chose to live here, close to his friends and family and roots.” But it’s one thing to not move away; something more to stay in The Book.
Now that the statue of Kesey reading to children has been installed and dedicated, it’s time for the city to return the favor and rename the intersection of Broadway and Willamette as Ken Kesey Square.
Back in 1997 when the fountain was removed and the plaza was built in its place, there were a few colorful names put forward for consideration. “Celebration Square” and “The Center of the Universe” were two that seemed fitting at the time. Eugene City Council the chose instead a placeholder of a name: “Broadway-Willamette Plaza.” Doesn’t that name just scream “strip mall”? Now they can correct that mistake or complete that transition, depending on your charitability.
A few of us moved to the Willamette Valley because of Kesey. More of us came here with expectations based in part on what Kesey wrote. All of us found this place more complex and unpredictable than we anticipated. And many of us stayed because of it. Give Kesey some credit for all of that. Ken Kesey never hid his connection to this area, but he also never indulged in any self-congratulations about that either. We can now reciprocate.
We don’t do permanence very well here in the Northwest. My New England grandfather would tell us he was going to the hardware store each month when his pension check arrived. We knew the hardware store had long ago been turned into a clothing store and then a bank, but that didn’t matter to Grandpa. His money was being held for him at the hardware store. When was the last time you heard anyone here say they were going to Seymours to catch a play or Quackenbush’s to pick up a book?
It doesn’t help that we tore down most of our classic buildings in the last wave of urban renewal 25 years ago. Public spaces are the best chance we have of connecting to our past. Besides the McDonald Theatre (now managed by Kit Kesey, Ken’s nephew), The Park Blocks is about the only downtown “name” that has retained usage beyond a single generation, and it’s not even the “official” name. (It’s “Martha Jane Mulligan Pioneer Park.” It was originally “Hitching Post Square.” You can look it up.)
Eugene as a place is trying to find its identity; its unique character; its center. Ken Kesey is a good place to start. As Barry Lopez said so eloquently at the Friday dedication, Ken “embodied the energetic defiance of that which kills us.” Doesn’t that describe us — a people who “refuse to grow up”?
The simple fact that Ken Kesey lived to be a grandfather confounds some who would have him be a simple figure. Just as his opinions about drugs might confound those whose children benefitted from his community activism. Ken Kesey was colorful, enigmatic, true to himself and rooted in this place. Is there a better symbol to mark the center of — if not the universe — our town?
“Ken Kesey Square” deserves to be at the center of Eugene for its oxymoronic value alone. Was there ever a man who more refused to be a square than Ken Kesey?
And if the post office will join the effort by renumbering the three buildings on that corner, we can be certain that generations to come will know his name and his connection to this place. Taco Time downtown will be located at 1 Ken Kesey Square. The Centre Court Building will be 2 Ken Kesey Square. Kitty-corner will be 3 Ken Kesey Square. The fourth corner will remain an open space, so anyone waiting for a DeFrisco’s sandwich can claim “4 Ken Kesey Square” as their address, however temporarily. Addresses are permanent. Then we’ll be assured of the final tribute to Ken Kesey: his name will be forever in The Book.