Ken Kesey: Author, Activist and Storyteller for the Hippie Generation
Written by:
Lauren Prater  May 24, 2012

Ken Kesey, who called Eugene home, helped the world transition into the hippie generation

Ken Kesey wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and he called Eugene home. Kesey graduated from Springfield High School in 1953 and from the University of Oregon’s journalism school in 1957. Most known for his hippie persona, Kesey identified with Eugene’s culture so much so that a little part of him still lives on in our city.

A bronze statue of Kesey holding his novel and wearing a beatnik hat was erected downtown not long after his 2001 death from surgery complications. Kesey’s close friend Peter Helzer made the statue, which is located in the plaza at the corner of Willamette and Broadway. The statue is called “Storyteller” and shows Kesey reading to statue representations of his grandchildren. Helzer made sure to leave a space on the bench for fans to stop and enjoy the symbol as well.

Kesey led an adventurous life. Though his literary works brought about his fame, his notorious traveling and drug-infused lifestyle enhanced it. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” studies the institutionalized human mind. The novel was a product of Kesey’s time working the graveyard shift at a mental health facility and taking LSD.

He and his band of friends, known as the Merry Pranksters, reconstructed an old school bus and completely covered it with colorful psychedelic designs. The bus is called “Further,” and their journey can be seen via real footage in the film “Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.”

Kesey once famously said, “We were too young to be beatniks and too old to be hippies.” The Merry Pranksters kept a strong friendship with band members from The Grateful Dead and Kesey had a series of parties called the “Acid Tests” during the mid ’60s, complete with strobe lights, black lights, fluorescent paint, The Grateful Dead’s music and, of course, LSD. The parties were advertised with various posters in public places asking onlookers, “Can you pass the Acid Test?” In 1965, Kesey was arrested for marijuana possession. He faked a suicide by leaving a brief suicide note in a truck on a California cliffside and fled to Mexico. He returned to the U.S. eight months later and was arrested. He spent five months in jail. After, he raised his family and wrote on his farm outside Eugene in Pleasant Hill. “Further” is still on the farm.@@it also came to campus one day last year. do we want to mention that?@@

Today the Kesey family owns and operates Nancy’s Cultured Dairy and Soy Creamery in Springfield (maker of Nancy’s Yogurt) and helps support Kesey Enterprises Inc. Kesey Enterprises manages events at McDonald Theatre, Cuthbert Amphitheater and Eugene Celebration Festival.

Kesey remains a part of the University as well. The English department is currently offering a four-week, eight-credit upper-division summer class about him and his works. Additionally, the Knight Library has worked hard to maintain Kesey’s entire literary collection — artwork, collages, photographs, journals and manuscripts. The collection, which dates from 1960 to 2001, currently totals 109 boxes, and it is held in the Special Collections section of the library. Kesey started depositing his manuscripts at Knight in the late ’60s, but because he died without a will, he didn’t leave the collection to the University. Fundraising efforts are the only way to ensure the University is able to keep the collection.

Kesey helped transition the world from the beat generation to the hippie movement. And in Eugene — Kesey’s home — his Storyteller statue lives on much like the different life perspectives and the literature he gave to the world