New York Times

November 15, 2001

Kesey's Words Resonate at the End of a Long Trip


EUGENE, Ore., Nov. 14 -- The message was simply said to be from "Kesey" and posted on the author's Web site,, shortly after his death here last Saturday.

"Now, all you people over there, get the news spread around that they're going to do a memorial service for me at the McDonald Theater in downtown Eugene at noon," Ken Kesey supposedly wrote from beyond. "And if you can't get inside we are going to put speakers out on the sidewalks so everyone can hear all the hoopla bound to be spreading out of the theater like moths on the wing."

Sure enough, the 750-seat theater was jammed today, with people spilling out onto Willamette Street, where they listened over loudspeakers. Inside, Ken Elton Kesey, the icon of the psychedelic era who died at 66, was honored on a stage bathed in green, yellow and pink neon. Mr. Kesey, who had cancer, died after complications from liver surgery.

The memorial service was eclectic, with a prayer from the Book of Isaiah and a benediction in the form of a Grateful Dead song, "And We Bid You Good Night." So was the crowd. It included many of Mr. Kesey's fellow Merry Pranksters, the proto-hippies who rode their LSD- fueled, Day-Glo International Harvester school bus with the "Weird Load" sign back and forth across the country in 1964, a journey chronicled in Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

Many aging hippies attended as well as hipster students from this university town, most, of course, born long after Mr. Kesey rode the bus and after he published his two best-known novels, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Sometimes a Great Notion," which appeared in the early 1960's.

But there were also many people from the less publicized life Mr. Kesey led for most of the last 30 years, in nearby Pleasant Hill, where he farmed, served on the school board, coached high-school wrestling and raised four children with Norma Faye, his wife and high school sweetheart.

"He actually believed in some very basic American stuff -- family, freedom, love," said Allan Rosenwasser, a painter and house remodeler who came to the service. "But I also loved the fact that he was not a conformist in any sense of the word."

Mr. Kesey had plenty of critics over the years, from those who saw him as the bard of a self-indulgent, sexually irresponsible age or as the principal glorifier of a drug culture that damaged many young lives. Some detected a misogynistic streak in "Cuckoo's Nest" and its portrayal of the domineering Nurse Ratched.

But there was no criticism to be heard today among those who knew, loved or simply admired the man, lauded as a great free spirit.

"To me, Ken stood for a lot of things enshrined in the Constitution," said Carolyn Adams, 55, who once rode the bus with Mr. Kesey and is the mother of his daughter, Sunshine.

"He stood for personal and creative freedom, for being able to push the envelope," said Ms. Adams, who was better known as Mountain Girl when she lived with Jerry Garcia in the Grateful Dead's communal home in San Francisco.

Or as Sunshine, 35, put it: "He beat the drum of freedom, pretty much all the time. His message was to be as big as you have it in you to be."

Mr. Kesey was also remembered for his wit. "He had fun, and he was funny," said Dave Frohnmayer, president of the University of Oregon and a former Republican state attorney general. Mr. Frohnmayer was one of several of Mr. Kesey's friends to speak at the service.

"He always said, 'I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph,' " Mr. Frohnmayer said.

The greatest laughter today was generated by Mr. Kesey himself, in a video put together by his son, Zane, 40, that included a send-up of a preacher Mr. Kesey once performed as well as his performances of magic tricks, a lifelong passion.

Mr. Kesey's words came through in other ways, including a reading from "Sometimes a Great Notion" and thoughts of his in the program. "What's really interesting is the mystery," he once wrote. "The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer."

At the theater, where Mr. Kesey once performed as a ventriloquist in his days at the University of Oregon, bagpipers played "Amazing Grace," and floral arrangements had "With Deepest Sympathy" cards. There were also handwritten remembrances like "Now it's up to us to drive the bus!" and "Hail the Chief!" written in a notebook laid out before a photograph of Mr. Kesey.

At the end of his note on the Web site, which in reality seems to have been written by his friend, fellow Merry Prankster and business associate, Ken Babbs, Mr. Kesey had a few more things to add:

"It says here they are going to bury me in private. Babbs says there's been thousands of e-mails and he wants me to thank you all for writing. Meanwhile, I've still lots of forms to fill out and they're looking for a bigger halo but durned if I'm going to play that harp. I'm holding out for the thunder machine. See you around. -- Kesey."