URBANA — As part of its 50th-reunion ceremonies, Urbana High’s Class of 1969 will have a small memorial for track star and class President James Wilson today.
You may know him better as Chef Ra, the dreadlocked, colorful character who could often be seen on the streets of downtown Champaign, or in the Esquire Lounge.
The marijuana cooking expert died in 2006.
The celebration of his life will be held at 4:20 p.m. today at Riggs Beer Garden (1901 S. High Cross Road, U) — not far from Yankee Ridge, where he grew up.
Friend, cannabis rights activist and former High Times Editor Steven Hager is planning a sing-along for the memorial service. Lyrics are at his Facebook page.
Hager met him in 1962.
“I was driving a new go-cart down the sidewalk, and he came running alongside,” Hager said. “His face was all lit up, and he was beaming with excitement. He wanted to drive it, but I don’t think I let him. Unlike most go-carts, it had a fiberglass body.”
They reunited in high school.
“Jim lettered in four or five sports. His dad was an assistant track coach who died suddenly of a heart condition while Jim was in high school. This event welded him and his mom, and they never separated,” Hager said.
Wilson played end on the football team in high school and was the backup placekicker, his friend said.
“But midway through the season, Jim got blackballed off the team by the coach, who mistakenly believed he’d written an anonymous letter to my hippie newspaper, The Tin Whistle,” Hager said. “Getting blackballed just activated Jim into becoming an activist for positive social change. He was a flamboyant master of ceremonies and spread a positive vibe.”
The friends ended up at Woodstock.
“I ran into Jim at the gates of Woodstock. He was picking up energy from everyone streaming in,” Hager said. “I’d arrived with around $20, having hitchhiked all the way. Jim handed me a bag of weed, which I traded bits of for the next three days; weed was the basic currency at Woodstock, where everything was in short supply.”
The two were starting on their paths.
“After that, he went to Jamaica and discovered Bob Marley,” Hager said. “When I became editor of High Times, he’s one of the first calls I made to invite him to jump onboard.”
Hager recalls epic banquets Chef Ra used to throw, typically featuring buttermilk fried chicken.
“While on a (Grateful) Dead tour, he survived by selling Rasta Pasta Pesto. He introduced us all to pesto,” Hager said.
Chef Ra became High Times’ resident recipe writer.
Hager mourns his friend, who had asthma and heart issues, and died at 56 despite his vibrant ways.