Ken Beebe, also known as Dr. Play, believes strongly in his prescription for a good life: Play and lots of it.
Ken distributes his prescriptions to most everyone he meets, irrespective of their insurance carrier or HMO membership, in the form of a business card. By his own estimate he has given out more than 1,500 cards.
On one side is his name and address. On the other, the following admonition: "Make play a high priority in your life for if you die tomorrow no one can play for you, but someone can and will do your work for you."
When on-Island, Ken is easily spotted practicing what he preaches, fishing in front of the Vineyard Haven Harbor seawall or wading the flats inside Lagoon Pond in front of the lobster hatchery. His vehicle with the distinctive license plate, "Dr Play," is parked nearby.
An avid fly fisherman, Ken has learned to adjust his casting techniques and fly selection to counteract the debilitating tremors, rigidity, and stiffness associated with Parkinson's disease. For a time the 59-year-old man was unable to use a gurgler, a fly designed to make a popping surface commotion when the fly line is stripped in short, quick bursts. Ken could not grab the fly line with his left hand.
Two weeks ago, Ken, a former assistant principal in Tisbury, caught several striped bass fishing a gurgler. The fact that he could once again strip the fly with his left hand was the successful result of a relatively new surgical therapy called deep brain stimulation.
Ken mentioned his upcoming treatment, delayed so he could participate in the contest, when I spoke with him in early June at the annual striped bass fly rod catch and release tournament. He told me matter-of-factly that it involved drilling a hole in his skull and said he would get back in touch to let me know how things all worked out.
The conversation began when I told Ken that during May I had often seen his car parked up by the flag pole at West Chop and him fishing down the beach at Mink Meadows. He told me it was a long walk to make but he and his friend John Kollet had been catching lots of stripers.
Ken said he used to park by the access lot to the power lines to cut down on the walk, but last October he was fishing on the beach by himself with not a soul in sight when he met the occupants of the large one-story house named Eight Bells overlooking the beach.
"The guy came out and walked the whole distance down and out to the beach to tell me I was parked illegally and I was not supposed to use the right of way," said Ken, "so I left. And that was in October, of all things."
John Kollet, a retired postal employee and expert fly fisherman, met Ken at the catch and release tournament ten years ago when he and his brother made their first visit to the Vineyard. "We didn't know a soul," said John.
The two men started talking. John told Ken he and his brother had had a good time but did not have a place to stay and would probably not return the next year. "Ken said, not only will you be back, but you will be staying in my house."
Ken extended an open invitation to John and his brother and any friends they might like to bring to come over and fish, telling them he had plenty of room. "He is so generous," said John.
Now that John lives here full-time, he and Ken often get together to fish. "Ken is my hero," said John. "Most guys I know don't fish as hard as he does and they are healthy."
John said that sometimes after an evening of fishing it was obvious that the effort had taken its toll. "Sometimes he has to will himself to take a step when he is done fishing because his legs kind of freeze up," said John. "But he is not going to let his Parkinson's get him down."
The Island has changed considerably since the late seventies when fate directed Ken to the Vineyard. "I was a school principal up n New Hampshire and my school burned down," he said. "So I interviewed for a job down here as a principal."
The Tisbury School job was offered to Alan Campbell, long-time school principal. Ken accepted the job of assistant principal.
When the position was eliminated, Ken decided to enter the business world and went to work for the telephone company on the mainland, first in the Boston area and later in Vermont, where he continues to maintain a home. Luckily, Ken and his wife, Laura, decided to keep their Vineyard house. He said his two children, a son and a daughter, enjoyed the combination of skiing in the winter and swimming in the ocean in the summer.
A maple tree is planted in memory of his daughter, a former Tisbury police officer, who died at a young age. His son lives in Colorado.
Ken was working for Lucent Technologies when he noticed his arm was shaking. In 1997, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's. At 55 years of age, he was retired.
Finished working, Ken decided to print up a card with the saying he had kept on his desk while he was working. He gives out the cards because he wants people to keep their priorities in order.
"You work to live, you don't live to work," said Ken, prior to leaving for a trip out west to hike and fish with his wife and son in Colorado. "I wanted to encourage people to get out there and do what they like to do."
What Ken likes to do is fish. On June 21 he underwent treatment designed to counteract the effects of Parkinson's disease. He described the procedure for me. It sounded quite interesting from a third person point of view.
"First of all," said Ken, "they put a vise on your head and use an MRI to map out the spot they will drill and you are awake for this. You can hear them drill the hole through your skull because when they get the hole drilled they have to put electrodes in and need to know if it is in the right spot, so they have to ask you questions."
He said right after the doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital had drilled the hole, the whole town lost power.
"So that was an adventure," said Ken.
According to the National Institute for Health web site, a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device called a neurostimulator - similar to a heart pacemaker and approximately the size of a stopwatch - is used to deliver electrical stimulation to targeted areas in the brain that control movement, blocking the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremor and Parkinson's disease symptoms. At present, the procedure is used only for patients whose symptoms cannot be adequately controlled with medications.
Ken said that prior to the operation he could hardly walk and his left arm stiffened up. Since the operation he has been able to walk more easily, and people tell him his speech is much clearer. He has also been able to cut back on his medications by 25 percent.
"I can go out for a mile walk now and keep up with my wife," he said. "Now I'm able to walk down for Friday night lobster rolls at Grace Church. Before that I would drive down; I would not even attempt to walk."
The ability to get around easier and use a wider selection of flies has widened Ken's fishing choices. Unlike many fishermen, Ken sees opportunity where others do not.
"This end of the Island is so under-fished," said Ken.
He said people tend to focus on the better-known fishing spots and do not want to believe that there are fish to be caught right under their noses.
He said his fishing pal John introduced him to the fact that fishing in the daytime can often be quite productive. One of his favorite spots is the flat in front of the Lobster Hatchery. He is often stopped and asked if he ever catches fish out there.
His response? "Do you think I go out there for nothing?"
"The last half of the low tide, just wade out there and cast around," he said. "Some days it's very good and some days it isn't."
Fish or no fish, Ken is happy to be fishing. "I am what you call your basic fanatic," he said.
Once he returns from Colorado, he plans to camp out at Scusset Beach north of Cape Cod Canal and fish for several weeks.
Ken said he caught 44 bass in two weeks in August prior to leaving the Vineyard, equal to all of his June spring tally. By most measures, Dr. Play is a healthier man than most.