Metro

Lowell monument captures Jack Kerouac’s spirit

Author’s words now inscribed at his gravesite

John Sampas, Kerouac’s literary executor and brother-in-law, stood by the new monument.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

John Sampas, Kerouac’s literary executor and brother-in-law, stood by the new monument.

LOWELL — Jack Kerouac was known for his voluminous output, famously typing his classic novel “On the Road” in a three-week burst on a scroll of paper. But it took just four words to capture the spirit of his life’s work on a new monument marking the author’s gravesite in Lowell: “The road is life.”

For literary tourists from across the globe, the road has led to Kerouac’s burial plot for decades. But finding the site for Kerouac, who died in 1969 at age 47, has been tricky, identified only by a modest plaque laid flush to the ground.

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On Tuesday, a local monument company quietly installed a 3,000-pound memorial stone for the plot in Edson Cemetery that honors the voice of the Beat Generation and the family of his wife, Stella Sampas., whom he married in 1966.

For the writer’s admirers, the site’s new visibility will be a welcome complement to the Kerouac Commemorative, a meditative park of walking paths and inscribed plinths on Bridge Street. Kerouac Park was dedicated in 1988, when the city of Lowell began to embrace its place in the life of a native son whose tales of an alternative lifestyle were once considered an embarrassment.

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More than 40 years after the writer’s death, nearly every day brings a few more fans looking for Kerouac, said Jade Bernis, head clerk at the cemetery. To make her job easier, she started printing directions on a handout: “Count six headstones in from Seventh Avenue and three headstones in from Lincoln Avenue.”

Jack Kerouac's grave was long marked by a modest plaque.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Jack Kerouac's grave was long marked by a modest plaque.

The simple inscription on the new stone — taken from Kerouac’s best-known book, the wanderers’ bible “On the Road” — was an easy decision, said John Sampas, Kerouac’s literary executor and Stella’s lone surviving sibling.

“I could have picked lots of things, but that was so succinct,” said Sampas, who on Tuesday morning inspected the freshly installed monument, which also bears Kerouac’s graceful signature.

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Born and raised in Lowell, Kerouac cut classes in high school to conduct his own studies at the Lowell Public Library. After leaving for Columbia University and the wider world of the road, he returned often.

In his later years, struggling with fame, he was a regular at such local watering holes as the Worthen House.

Sampas, now in his 80s, recalls being a “rugrat” as the young Kerouac visited his family to hang out with Sampas’s older brother Sebastian, who would be killed during World War II. Sebastian Sampas encouraged Kerouac, who played football, to pursue his talent as a writer.

“We had a phonograph on the table, and Jack and Sebastian used it all the time, playing Billie Holiday,” John Sampas said. “That’s how I learned about jazz.

“There was a group of them, all very bright guys. They called themselves ‘the Prometheans.’ ”

Sampas said he plans to host a ceremony to formally unveil the new memorial stone in the coming weeks, with the help of University of Massachusetts Lowell, home of the Jack and Stella Kerouac Center for the Public Humanities. The date has not been set.

The new stone, cut from Vermont granite, is 6 feet wide, 3 feet tall, and 8 inches thick, said Dave Calkins of Colmer Monument Works. He and his crew installed the monument Tuesday morning in a bit of haste, making sure to beat the arrival of a drizzling rain.

“You’ve heard the term ‘slippery when wet?’ ” Calkins asked. “That really applies with a stone that weighs 3,000 pounds.”

Bernis, the cemetery clerk, said that she greets visitors to the Kerouac site even in the dead of winter. She said visitors leave behind all sorts of memorabilia, and Sampas said he has collected many boxes of the items at home. “My favorite thing was when someone left a slipper, because when he comes out to drink, he needs something for his feet,” Bernis said.

At least one fan prefers not to announce himself at the office by the cemetery entrance. Bob Dylan has made multiple visits to the gravesite to pay respects by himself, Bernis said.

“He comes and has dinner with Jack,” she said. “One of these times I’m going to catch him.”

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Joanne Rathe of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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