Wavy Gravy- Living More than the Hippie Philosophy

George Khoury

He may be the last living embodiment of the 1960s and the tangible importance of the Woodstock generation. It was Hugh Romney who stood on the stage at the Woodstock festival, August 1969, and announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!”

Known as Wavy Gravy (a name given him by B.B. King) he is an activist and entertainer that does not ever slow down. Wavy founded and co-founded several organizations that have changed lives. Camp Winnarainbow has made a difference in the lives of children. Each summer the camp holds four two-week sessions for kids and a one week session for adults. The instructors are volunteers who teach juggling, unicycle, tightrope walking and trapeze, in addition to music and art.

“Grownup camp is just like our kids camp but here you stay up late and don’t have to brush your teeth. What we are into is producing universal human beings who can deal with anything that comes down the pike with some style and grace. We curry both hemispheres of the brain, “Wavy said. The kids start each day with a reading from Wavy. Then they can go to yoga or aerobics and the other physical classes. The camp is funded from royalties from the Ben & Jerry’s Wavy Gravy ice cream flavor as well as with grants from the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation. Scholarships are provided for homeless children in the Bay area and American kids from a reservation in South Dakota.

Wavy has always been committed to helping children. As he was home recuperating from his third spinal surgery, a group of doctors from the Children’s Hospital of Oakland had read about Wavy and paid him a visit. Although he could hardly walk he could not refuse their invitation to entertain their kids. “I thought I had troubles until I eyeballed some of those kids.” This one visit to clown around and make kids laugh developed into a seven year daily visit until it came to A mysterious stop. “I visited the kids’ everyday for seven years. I went on a tour and when I returned they would not let me in anymore. It was a blow. I guess someone on the board didn’t want a hippie freak coming in there.”

A lesser person would have moved on to other business but not Wavy. He did move on but to the Children’s Cancer Research Institute in San Francisco. His childlike view and attitude of the world brought fun and joy to kids going through chemotherapy. Wavy’s sense of the absurdity of the world brought his traveling commune, The Hog Farm to music event on a New York State farm.

“We were holed up in a big loft in New York’s  East Side in 68-69. One day a guy with an attaché case showed up and asked how we would like to do this music festival. They were going to fly 85 hippies and 15 Indians in an Astrojet toward a place called Woodstock. We were requested to build fire pits and fire trails around the grounds. We convinced the promoters to also let us set up a free kitchen. They agreed. When we stepped off the plane the international press greeted us and asked how we would set up security and manage crowd control? Somebody got things wrong-us? Security? I told them we were going to use cream pies and seltzer bottles. They wrote that down and we were on out way!”

After Woodstock, the Hog Farmers toured the world setting up stages for major rock festivals. “ After setting up for a Pink Floyd concert in England, the Hog Farmers pooled their money and worked their way across Europe.

“It was around that time of the great Pakistani flood and relief was not pouring in. I remembered a line from Gandhi, ‘If God should appear to starving people, God would not dare appear in any form than food.’ The free kitchen worked so well at Woodstock that we took the idea into the flooded area. We got so much publicity that governments were shamed into sending contributions.”

When the Indo-Pakistani war erupted, Wavy and the gang moved into refugee camps and distributed food, medical supplies and clothing. They stayed longer and repaired homes and built playgrounds. Who is this Wavy Gravy who seems to arrive in disaster and despair and leave the circumstances much better?

Hugh Romney was born in East Greenbush, New York on May 12, 1936. It was said that as he was growing up in Princeton, New Jersey, young Hugh would take walks with Albert Einstein. He completed his high school education in Connecticut and after 22 months received an honorable discharge from the Army. Under the G.I. Bill he studies theater and quickly found himself in New York City where Lenny Bruce was his manager and became good friends to a skinny singer from Minnesota-Bob Dylan.

He was the right place for a cultural boom. He plugged into the poetry and music community. Marlene Dietrich gave him a book of poems, a Dylan song was composed on his typewriter. He has opened for John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Peter, Paul and Mary.

By 1962 Romney was in Los Angeles. The Hog Farm Collective grew out of a floating commune called the Merry Pranksters. When a local hog farmer needed caretakers in exchange for rent, Hugh took it. Soon local musicians, artists and others drifted to the farm. “It was a bizarre communal experiment with the people outnumbering the pigs.”

By 1966, The Hog Farm developed into an organization that provided light shows for the Grateful Dead, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix. Wavy helped found Seva Foundation which is involved internationally with ongoing health projects that fights preventable and curable blindness in underserved communities. He has relied on such friends as Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash for fund raising concerts.

As an artist, his work is exhibited periodically across the country. Satirist Paul Krassner has called Wavy, “the illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Teresa.” When people call Wavy a saint, he responds with, “I tell them I’m Saint Misbehavin.”

It would be an empty world if Wavy Gravy was simply an entertaining clown and not a man who sees things with a broader vision… and a loving attitude to change the things that he can change.

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