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"I have a tendency to overload myself," says
Kris Kristofferson '58. "I don't like to say no when I've fought for so long to get up there and sing."
Acts of Will

By Michael Balchunas

When World War II hero Jose Lopez of Brownsville, Texas, returned from Europe with a
Medal of Honor, he was the toast of New York. The mayor pumped his hand, and the city
opened its arms to him. In Brownsville, across the Rio Grande from Mexico, there was to
be a welcoming parade. Kristoffer Kristofferson ’58, a Brownsville native who was then
about 8, remembers.

“I don’t know if I was idealistic,” he says, “but I had a definite sense of things when
they weren’t right. Down in Brownsville, there was a lot of prejudice against Mexicans
at that time. It was an atmosphere that my mother, God bless her, taught me was wrong. I remember going to the parade for the Medal of Honor winner. None of the other Anglos went to it. But we went. And I think that probably planted the seed.”

Like Salsola tragus, the tough, wiry tumbleweed that was introduced to the West and grew to become one of its key symbols, Kristofferson, after breaking free of his roots,
has carried that seed wherever the winds have taken him.

His mother, Mary Ann Ashbrook ’33, had married an ardent flier, Henry Kristoffer
Kristofferson, who became a commercial pilot and then an airline pilot after retiring
from the Air Force as a major general. They moved several times before settling in the
upscale Northern California community of San Mateo, where Kris went to high school. His
mother persuaded him to consider Pomona among other colleges, but Kristofferson, at the
time, was no scholar.

“I loved football,” he says. “Pomona had a football coach, Jesse Cone, who wrote me a
letter after I’d applied and said he thought I could play here. He was the only coach  from any of the colleges that I’d applied to who said that. I wasn’t very big and I wasn’t very fast. So I came here to play. And I just loved it.”

Kristofferson, majoring in creative literature, was a capable but not exceptional  student. “Kris is very shy in certain ways,” says Frederick Sontag, the Robert C. Denison Professor of Philosophy, and a friend and mentor of Kristofferson’s for half a century. “He took a couple of courses with me, and he never would speak up in class. He doesn’t dominate or take over in a group. He’s not that kind of guy.”

There was no clear objective in his studies; Kristofferson thought he might become a
teacher. But he confided to Sontag that an academic life was not what he really wanted.
“From the time I knew what one was, I wanted to be a creative person,” he says. “A
teacher back in high school had encouraged my creative writing, so I thought that might
be a direction I’d go in. And I felt that I needed to experience as much as Hemingway
had, so I went out to live just as much as I could.”

During summers, Kristofferson worked at far-flung construction jobs, and once as a
firefighter on a railroad crew in Alaska. In his junior year, he won the first and
third prizes and several honorable mentions in a short-story contest sponsored by the
Atlantic Monthly. “Dr. Sontag and Dr. [Edward] Weismiller, who taught creative writing,
my favorite class, did a lot of pushing me—dragging me—asking me where I was going and
encouraging me. They both planted in me the idea of applying for a Rhodes scholarship,”
says Kristofferson.

Before writing a recommendation, Sontag talked to Cone, the football coach, for ideas
on what to say about Kristofferson, a pass catcher who played end. “And he told me,
‘Well, Kris really isn’t very tall. And he isn’t really very strong. And really, he’s
not very fast.’ And then he paused and he said, ‘Kris is a football player by the will
of Kris Kristofferson, not by the will of God.’”

The first round of Rhodes interviews went poorly, and Sontag told Kristofferson that if
he did not exert himself, he had no chance. “I told Dr. Sontag I wasn’t going to do
it,” Kristofferson says. “I told him I’d been at school too long already, and I had to
get on with my life. And he spent the whole night—the better part of it—talking me out
of quitting. He said, ‘You know, years from now, nobody’s going to say, well, you could
have made it into Oxford. But if you do it, and you get it, it’s something you’ll live
with forever.’ And I’ve been grateful to him ever since. It was one of the best things
that ever happened to me.”

After winning the scholarship, Kristofferson immersed himself at Oxford in the work of
the poet William Blake. “I studied his commitment to being an artist, to not being
enslaved to another man’s system,” Kristofferson says.

It was understood that military service lay ahead for Kristofferson. Besides his
father, both of his grandfathers had been military officers. “My family had made clear
to me that there was no way I was not going to excel in ROTC,” which he had joined at
Pomona, Kristofferson says. After receiving a master’s degree at Oxford in 1960, he
entered the Army. While stationed in West Germany, he attended flight school, where he
learned to pilot helicopters, and Airborne Ranger school. A fan of the country singer
Hank Williams since childhood, he also put together a band and started to write songs.

When his tour of duty ended, Kristofferson, a captain, was offered a teaching
appointment at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “I would have been a major and
on my way, and I thought heavily about doing it,” he says. “Up to a certain point in
life, I did what was expected of me by my parents and by my peers. But I had started
writing songs while I was over there in Germany, and I really had my heart set on
making something out of it. I remember telling a general that I used to fly with … He
was talking to me about the West Point assignment, and I told him that I was going to
go and get briefed on it.” Then, says Kristofferson, “I told him that I really thought
I wanted to be a songwriter. I’m sure it sounded like I’d said I wanted to be Bozo the
Clown. But he looked at me and he said, ‘You know, follow your heart.’ Surprising
advice to come from a military man. But he knew where my heart was.”

When he moved to Nashville, his parents were less understanding. “They thought that
somewhere between Oxford and the Army I had gone crazy,” Kristofferson says. “My mother
said nobody over 14 listens to that kind of stuff anyway. It was kind of a break with
my family. But also it was maybe what I needed to get loose, to start living life as I
wanted to, rather than do what was expected of me. Ever since college, at Oxford and at
Pomona too, I’d been thinking of being a writer, and I really didn’t know how that fit
in with being a so-called respectable member of the community. But I was more and more
determined to go that way. And being virtually disowned was kind of liberating for me,
because I had nothing to lose.”

Kristofferson held various jobs in Nashville for several years, while writing and
pitching songs with just enough encouragement to stick with it. While working as a
custodian at a recording studio, he was befriended by Johnny Cash, who was only a few
years older than him but already a country music star. Once, after having known Cash
for a couple of years, Kristofferson landed a helicopter on the singer’s lawn to offer
him a song. As Cash later recounted it, Kristofferson emerged from the helicopter with
a cigarette and a tape in one hand, and a beer in the other. “Even friends can get
creative with their memories,” Kristofferson says with a laugh. “I’ve done a lot of
drinking in my days, but never in a helicopter. I told John, it takes two hands just to
fly a helicopter, and your feet too.”

In 1966, Dave Dudley recorded a song Kristofferson had written called “Vietnam Blues.''
Strongly supportive of soldiers, it was a mild commercial success. His songwriting
career slowly accelerated. Then, in 1969, when Kristofferson was nearing his mid-30s,
Cash recorded his “Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ and Ray Price released another
Kristofferson song, “For the Good Times.’ Each was named Song of the Year in 1970, by
rival country music organizations. About the same time, Roger Miller recorded “Me and
Bobby McGee”; Janis Joplin’s version later made it an anthem for the Baby Boom
generation. Over the years, more than 500 recording artists have covered songs
Kristofferson has written or co-written, a number of them enduring hits.

His acting career began after director Dennis Hopper invited him to write music for The
Last Movie in 1971. Kristofferson had a bit part as a singer in the film. More roles
followed, with Kristofferson appearing in an average of two to three movies a year. He
frequently has been cast in films that evoke symbols and images associated with the
mythos of the American West. Among them have been John Sayles’ highly regarded Lone
Star, in which he played a corrupt and murderous sheriff; the well-received Pat Garrett
and Billy the Kid; and the notorious Heaven’s Gate, a commercial dud that has recently
inspired renewed interest. Kristofferson’s acting in Western roles has frequently drawn
admiring reviews from film critics, perhaps in keeping with his musical success in the
country genre.

But as with the tumbleweed, a plant native to Eurasia that was introduced to the U.S.
only in the late 1800s, the Western environment in which Kristofferson has thrived as a
singer, songwriter and actor is an adopted one.

There are two sides to Kris Kristofferson. One side, born in subtropical southeastern
Texas, and most familiar to audiences, favors black jeans, a black shirt, and cowboy
boots. A former Golden Gloves boxer, he often drops his g’s when talking, cusses with a
trace of unease, drives a tractor at home, used to drink and smoke and carouse to
excess, loves football, and was divorced twice before settling down. Although a
globe-trotting celebrity, he lacks pretentiousness and is self-deprecatory. The other
side is Kristofferson’s comfortable background as the son of a general, a graduate of
Pomona and Oxford, a Mason. His mother, sister, a cousin and a nephew also attended
Pomona. Sontag is fond of joshing him as “the cowboy from West San Mateo.”
Kristofferson-as-cowboy is not so much an affectation as an adaptation, a case of
someone who planted himself in a new territory, and after a tenuous start, thrived
beyond all expectations. Especially, perhaps, his own.

Immensely successful in connecting emotionally with large audiences, Kristofferson has
weathered self-destructive tendencies. “Hank Williams died when he was 29, and he was
the first hero I was trying to live up to,” he says. “Most of the heroes in that vein
have been pretty self-destructive, and I was myself for a while. But you can’t keep
going like that. I used to drink a lot just to get up on the stage. … I didn’t have a
lot of confidence at the beginning.” Cash helped ease the way, putting Kristofferson on
stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.

The seed his mother planted, a pronounced sense of right and wrong, has not only stayed
with Kristofferson, but grown. In the 1980s and 1990s, his creative work became
increasingly polemical. “As I got further from the Army and became exposed to more
avenues of information, I got more and more concerned about what my government was
doing in places like Nicaragua, El Salvador, and God knows what’s going on today,” he

While performing at a show with Cash in Philadelphia in the mid-1990s, Kristofferson
dedicated a song to death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal. Backstage, he was told that many
audience members and the police guarding the show were angry, and that he would have to
apologize. Kristofferson was not sure what to do. Cash came over to him, he says, and
told him, “Kris, you don’t need to apologize on my show.” Kristofferson instead joined
Cash on stage for a duet of Kris’s song “Why Me” to end the show.

As his political views crystallized, Kristofferson’s commercial exposure declined. “For
a country singer to be writing songs about Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi and
Malcolm X, it’s not hard to see how some of the labels felt that I was unmarketable,”
he says. “Radio stations wouldn’t play it. I can remember 300 people at a concert in
Atlanta wanting their money back because I was saying something about Oliver North or
somebody who was supplying the contras. Johnny Cash wrote a long letter
defending me in a country music magazine that had devoted a whole issue to what a
communist I was, or what a traitor.”

Cash, who died in September 2003 at 71, had been Kristofferson’s friend and mentor
since those years in Nashville. “People admired Johnny Cash for his integrity,” says
Kristofferson, who wrote a remembrance of Cash earlier this year for Rolling Stone
magazine. “Here was a man who was standing up for prisoners and prison reform when it
was a very unpopular position to take. John epitomized integrity. And if people could
say that I stood up for what I believed in, the way that he did, I don’t know what
would be a better tribute.”

Kristofferson says his creative urge has abated little since childhood. Now, at 68, his
career has ebbed only slightly, despite heart bypass surgery in 1999. He continues to
write songs, to act in movies, to sing, and to tell his story. Though he has appeared
in more than 80 movies and has toured the world as a concert performer, his passport
still lists his occupation simply as “writer.” When the pressure of his work as a
performer and as a public personality becomes too oppressive, he retreats to a secluded
home in Hawaii, where he has been working on his autobiography.

“The more popular you get, the more offers you get,” he says, “and you get used to just
saying, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ I have a tendency to overload myself. I don’t like to say no
when I’ve fought for so long to get up there and sing. It’s like a boxer, after he’s
been clamoring to get into the ring, saying, ‘Hey, that sumbitch is hittin’ me.’”

He is not ready to be counted out of show business, although his family now takes
precedence, he says. He has been married for 20 years to Lisa Meyers, an attorney, with
whom he has five children. He was previously married to the singer Rita Coolidge, with
whom he has a daughter, and to his high school sweetheart, Fran Beer, the mother of his
two oldest children.

“I feel pretty lucky to be at this end of my life and to be surrounded by family, and
still together with the family, because the road can wipe that out,” he says. “I’m
happy that I still get to express myself in a way that I feel is still creative.”

He still works to gain the applause of the crowd, Kristofferson says, because “It feels
like you’re communicating. And that is the best feeling for me. I know that nobody
thinks that I’m a great singer. Or that I’m the best-looking human being up there on
the stage. But when you’re communicating, when the people out there are feeling the
same way you felt when you wrote the song, that’s what makes it

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