"He was a major figure in this town and a legend to me. I thought it would be cool to commemorate somebody close to people's hearts."
CHAMPAIGN — Langston Allston didn't know James "Ra" Wilson Jr. personally. But his parents did. And so did many other people in Champaign-Urbana.
Known as Chef Ra or just Ra, Wilson was a colorful counterculture figure who once ran for president on a pro-marijuana platform, hosted a reggae show on WEFT Radio, drove a cab around C-U, wrote a cooking-with-pot column for High Times magazine and led tours to Jamaica.
"He was a major figure in this town and a legend to me," Allston said Thursday in downtown Champaign, where Wilson was a constant presence. "I thought it would be cool to commemorate somebody close to people's hearts."
The 22-year-old Allston is doing that now on a north-facing wall in the courtyard of Mike N Molly's, a bar that was one of Ra's hangouts and in the same North Market Street block as WEFT studios.
Allston started sketching out the 20-foot high mural Wednesday on a two-and-a-half-story high brick wall. He's using two tall ladders and spray paint, Latex paint and then a sealer.
He expects to finish in two weeks.
Pictures of the work in-progress popped up on Facebook on Wednesday, with some commenting the mural doesn't resemble Wilson. Allston, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois in painting, is unfazed.
"That picture on Facebook was from the side," he said. "It's going to look like him when it's done. I'm not going to worry about it."
Mike Murphy, owner of Mike N Molly's, isn't worried either.
"It's my wall. I knew him. I think it looks like him," Murphy said.
Murphy is raising money to cover the mural's $2,500 cost. If he doesn't receive that in donations, he will cover the cost himself. If donations surpass his goal, he'll give the surplus to a local charity that Wilson would have approved of.
Murphy is thinking WEFT. Or the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club, because Ra, who was 56 when he died in his sleep at his Urbana home, was all about "normalizing race relations."
Murphy just posted information Wednesday about the Chef Ra Mural account he opened at Central Illinois Bank in downtown Champaign. So far, $200 has been contributed.
Like many who knew Wilson — who at Urbana High was a standout athlete and senior class president — Murphy loved him. And like many, he believes C-U is not the same without Ra around.
"When he pulled up in front of the bar, you felt a rainbow had landed," Murphy said. "His personality was so much fun to be around."