KEN KESEY seemed prepared. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest had donned cap and gown, and carried a roll of speech papers as he walked grinning to the lectern Saturday at woodsy, sun-sprinkled Campus Plaza at The Evergreen State College. As commencement speaker at the free-spirited Olympia school's 30th graduation, the semiretired Merry Prankster told the 1,160 graduates (ages 20 to 68) that, back in the 1970s, "this was declared the college for all hippies—one place so they could keep an eye on them. I can see they were successful."
Kesey, who lectured at Evergreen decades back, read from a moving account of his love for hunting and his anti-gun hangover after 15-year-old Kip Kinkel shot 23 students (killing two) in 1998 at Thurston High in Springfield, Ore., where Kesey and family live in a big barn on a 70-acre spread. Kinkel had earlier killed his own parents, who were both teachers— "a quiet, friendly family that produced a gun nut." In the end, Kinkel's spree with long guns led Kesey to hang up his own beloved hunting weapons.
But Kesey had something other typically unconventional Evergreen speakers didn't have: a surprise ending.
As he wound up, he paused abruptly and began shuffling his papers. "I . . . uh . . ." the 70s icon said. "I lost my last page."
He turned to the back of the stage where he'd been sitting with faculty members. "Is it back there, did I leave it there?" he asked. All shook their heads.
"Well, then," he said, tossing up his hands and winging his final words on America's shooting rampage: "Unless somebody [else] stops it, it's going to have to be the kids. Thank you."
The "kids" cheered and applauded—among them my 61-year-old sister Susan Merriman, who after two husbands and nine children had decided that "someone from our family has to graduate from something." A Kesey fan, she was moved by his presence and even his truncated talk. "A challenging speech with no ending," the new grad said, smiling. "That's the Evergreen way."
Rick Anderson email@example.com