Our Stories

Honoring a True Friend


Kevin Dean '06, Alex MacKenzie '06 and Wes Randall '06 arrived in Miami Feb. 26 after a 3,200-mile trip that included frigid winter temperatures, multiple bike breakdowns, and a plethora of unforgettable experiences. The young men have raised more than $14,000 for the ALS Association and are still accepting donations at www.coast2coast4kalan.net. "It's an amazing feeling to be done and to know that we've completed something great and challenging," Dean says. "Even though it was tough, it was for a great friend."

"He was warm-hearted and a really nice guy."

"He was always trying to help."

"He was so disciplined."

"You ever have a friend you always knew you could rely on? Well, that was Kalan."

When you ask Kalan Morinaka's friends to describe him, the words flow easily. Through high school in Nyssa, Ore., and during his following years at Willamette, Morinaka was known as a cheerful and funny guy, always there for those who needed him.

He was a devoted scholar, the valedictorian of his high school class and on a pre-med track in college. Many also knew him for his athletic skills, as a high school football player and wrestler, supervisor of intramural sports at Willamette and a national competitor in judo.

Morinaka died this fall from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) -- a disease that typically hits people older than 40 but left 22-year-old Morinaka almost unable to talk and move in a matter of months. When the worst became reality, his friends immediately knew the best way to respond. They wanted to raise money for the ALS Association by organizing a bike ride -- but not just any ride: They plan to travel coast-to-coast from San Diego to Miami.

Alex MacKenzie '06, Kevin Dean '06 and Wes Randall '06 -- all football players and Morinaka's fraternity brothers in Sigma Alpha Epsilon -- start out Jan. 10 and hope to make the 3,300-mile trip in about 60 days. Fellow football player Jon Irizarry '06 will help track their progress and coordinate their trip from Salem.

"Kalan was such a great competitor and athlete throughout his life, so we thought a physical feat like this was a great way to honor him," MacKenzie says.

MacKenzie, Dean and Randall became friends with Morinaka through Sigma Alpha Epsilon; Morinaka was president of the group last year. They remember when their friend first showed signs of ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. In summer 2005, his speech started to slur, a problem that worsened over the next year until doctors finally diagnosed the disease in June.

"He kept serving as our president even after the symptoms came," Dean says. "By the end of the year, you almost couldn't understand him. But it didn't matter. People still respected him. We always had great respect for the way Kalan carried himself. I never saw a flaw in his character."

The four athletes all graduate this fall, so it was good timing for them to take two months off to be involved in a ride. Dean was the one to start recruiting participants. "It's the perfect reason to put life on hold," he says. "The cause and motivation we have to do it is well worth putting other things aside for awhile."

Bringing awareness to a disease that hasn't received much attention also is important to them. They didn't know much about ALS when they heard of Morinaka's diagnosis. Randall assumed Kalan's speech problem would go away on its own. MacKenzie didn't realize ALS could take someone's life so quickly. "For me, it's been an educational process, and we're hoping to give that experience to other people," he says.

The athletes have been training by riding every day, but they know they can't even begin to imagine the obstacles they'll face on so many miles of open road. However, they say the challenge and ultimate goal of honoring their friend will only push them harder. They hope to raise at least $30,000 for the ALS Association; so far, they have collected $5,000.

The students created a web site, www.coast2coast4kalan.net, which includes bios of each of them and Morinaka, information on how to donate and the trip itinerary. They also plan to keep a blog on the site during their ride. They are asking people to pledge money for every mile they complete.

Willamette lost two students this fall. Logan Will, a member of the Willamette University Debate Union and one of the top parliamentary debaters in the nation, died after a car crash while heading home to Grants Pass for Thanksgiving. The debate program has established the Logan Will Memorial Fund to give an annual end-of-the-year academic award to an outstanding debater. Contributions may be made to the Logan Will Fund - Willamette University, and mailed to Prof. Robert Trapp, Gatke Hall, Willamette University, 900 State St., Salem, OR 97301.