Written by Doreen Shumpert
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.40
One day in 1994, the nationally syndicated agricultural-based radio show AgriTalk was talking about another “real-life issue, the kind nobody else would talk about,” according to then- producer Rustin Hamilton. This was customary of the show, which that particular day featured a psychiatrist who was discussing rural life and questions from a sociological standpoint. The topic was, “What is the Meaning of Happiness?”
After various commentaries, calls and exchanges with the doctor, the call screener reported there was a very dear man on the phone who wished to weigh in on the meaning of happiness, and he had a short poem he’d like to share.
It was against the show’s policy to allow such, thus avoiding the “snowball effect” of countless similar requests. However, the man was so genuine and sweet the screener couldn’t say no.
“I told her I’d tell him no, being Mr. Tough Guy,” Hamilton laughed. “So I got on the phone and had him read the poem off the air to me. It was called ‘Small Pleasures of Life’,” Hamilton said. “Of course, we put him on the air, and he knocked the place over. We had over 1,000 responses Joe Kreger to that poem,” Hamilton said. “It just resonates really well if you’re from the country and hit home with a lot of people. It was simple poetry from a simple guy.”
Kreger’s poem that so impacted listeners mentioned the joys in watching your children, watchin’ a mare nurse, or findin’ a lost button off your shirt. In conclusion, it neatly summarized happiness as “It’s just what you do with whatever you’ve got that makes all the difference if you’re happy or not.”
That radio appearance ultimately served as Joe Kreger’s big break into show business—or at least the official cowboy poet business. He’d privately been at it for quite some time, and had written 300 to 400 poems that were inspired by the simple, unpredictable, daily happenings of ranch life and life in general. After that first radio encounter, Hamilton asked Kreger to be a regular on the show and ultimately became his agent.
“Every time he was on, he carried the show, and that’s where he really gained an audience,” Hamilton said. “He’s sold several thousand copies of his work, and several hundred is considered good for cowboy poetry,” Hamilton pointed out.
All of this “being in the spotlight business” was as foreign to Kreger as an Oklahoma blizzard in July. He is first and foremost a cowboy and family man; the poetry is simply born of the life- style.
Born and raised in Tonkawa, Okla., he’s been horseback and ranchin’ as long as he can recall. Other than a stint with the Army and a few ranch jobs in other states, he’s never been far from Tonkawa. There he lives, with his Dingo dog named Oakie, on his ranch that’s a mix
of former family-owned farm ground plus leased and purchased additions. For the past 20 years or so, Kreger has raised Beefmaster Cattle, and his cow/calf operation incorporates purebred and commercial cattle. Occasionally, he’s taken a town job or two to supplement his income and “outrun the wolf” in the cattle business, as he says. Such jobs include teaching agriculture at Northern Oklahoma College, employ- ment at the Continental Oil Company, and some time selling ranch equipment. But, he’s always drifted back to his roots and family. His mother Gladys still lives in town, and his son Joe, daughter-in-law Traci and two grandkids (two and a half year old Caroline Grace and nine-month old John Landon) live in Edmond, Okla. Although health problems have forced him afoot over the past three years, he’s got a “good hand doin’ the ridin,’” and he aims to get in the saddle again as soon as he can.
It’s been said there’s no better way to view God’s creation than from between the ears of a horse. The solitude, view, and chance to reflect and ponder can cre- ate one of the most ideal artists’ canvases in the world. Such is the case for Kreger, who’s poetry is inspired daily in such a setting. In fact, he wrote his first poem when he was 56 years old “out of pure frustration.”
“The Salt Fork of the Arkansas River where our ranch headquarters is located kept flooding and tearing us up,” Kreger shared. “I got a poem in my head about it, wrote it down, and I guess I sprang a leak of my own because I’ve been at it since,” he said. “I’ve never spent a lot of time at it, but if a poem comes to me I’ll write it down, and if not, I don’t worry about it,” he laughed.
Kreger’s poetry is classic to anyone from a rural or cowboy heritage. His poems are written with humor, reverence or a truth born of experience—whichever applies. All are rich in their ability to make the reader laugh, cry or reminisce because they each “hit home” with some- body in some way.
He’s written about everything from the local diner, where “there were no anemic French fries, Cecil cooked ‘em to a crunch, you were ready for anything, after Cecil fixed your lunch,” to fun boyhood memories of “Grandpa’s Barn,” where “One grain’ry was the jail house, where we incarcerated crooks, and the other was the office, where we kept the secret books.” He’s written about cold- backed horses: “He’s always been a good ‘un. Got loads of speed and power. You know you’ll be well mounted—in about another hour.” He’s written many faith- based poems, showcasing his unwaver- ing and solid faith in God: “He whispers softly to me, as leaves stir in the breeze. He made this land; He made me and the horse between my knees.”
And true to any cowboy, he’s written about old friends, old dogs, and cattle. He’s even written a poem about cowboy icon Roy Rogers. Kreger said as a boy, it was the highlight for any kid when the Roy Rogers picture show came to town.
“He was a wonderful hero for several generations,” Kreger said. “There are too many anti-heroes today. There are some heroes, but we could sure use a few more.”
Not surprisingly, Kreger also enjoys good cowboy poetry by artisans such as Baxter Black. However, he admires one guy in particular—Carlos Ashley. Although long-passed, Ashley was a nota- ble poet from the Texas hill country and is still admired today.
“As far as cowboy poets, he’s prob- ably the best I’ve ever read,” Kreger said. “I haven’t ever tried to duplicate him— he’s that good— but if I had to pick one that influences me, it would be him,” he continued. “He’s an icon amongst the contemporary cowboy poets and just has such a way with words.”
So does Kreger. And that way with words has led to the production of two books, “Lookin’ at Life” and “Still Lookin’”, and two CDs on which Kreger recites his own poetry, “Small Pleasures” and “The Code.” He also produced a double CD set of pure Christian poems called “Gatherin’ Strays.” Additionally, he appears at several speaking engagements per year, including farm and ranch meet- ings, churches, radio broadcasts, animal health company sponsored tours, and charity events, such as a recent one for hearing-impaired children with cochlear implants. He also writes a regular column for the “High Plains Journal”—the prima- ry distributor of his books and CDs. And, from 1998 to 2001, he held the presti- gious title of Poet Laureate of Oklahoma, after being appointed by then-governor Frank Keeting.
“The poetry keeps me busy, along with the ranch,” Kreger said. “I do all the engagements I have time for that allow me to still be a cattleman.” Either way, he plans to continue sharing his experi- ences and putting pen to paper “as long as the Good Lord leaves me a functional brain.”
When asked what he enjoys most about writing poetry, his answer was typically humble. It’s cer- tainly not fame and fortune; it’s solely about sharing his faith with others.
“Personally, I enjoy drawing a lesson or principle of life out of situations. Most of my poems are on values and observations of life, and lessons learned from just observing horses, dogs and cows. I’ve learned a lot, and I do try to employ some humor,” he continued. “In my Christian poetry, I hope to draw people to the real Source of Truth, God’s Word, and I take a lot of inspira- tion from the Scriptures.”
His overall goal for his poetry is two-fold. “First, I want people to be drawn to the Word of God and good values that are worth sharing. Second, I want them to be entertained and to find something about the cowboy life they can identify with,” he said.
Along with countless blessings, Kreger’s life has seen its share of storms. Aside from countless floods and setbacks on the ranch, he also suffered the horrific loss of his beloved two daughters in a truck accident in 1985. Today, his favorite work of all stems from this tragedy. It’s a poem he calls “The Windbreak.”
“It’s about a row of pine trees here at the house that forms a wind break. Each was a living Christmas tree, and it’s a bridge back to my daughters,” he softly shared. “When I look at those pine trees, I’m transported back to when the girls were little, and it’s a past I enjoy going down.”
Yet amidst his share of shipwrecks, Kreger has both maintained and been sustained by his faith—a faith that even astounds Hamilton.
“Joe’s like a second dad to me,” he said. “I’ve never known anyone to live the life Joe’s lived and to keep their faith,” he added. “But he has. I think the world of him.”
Just like his childhood hero Roy Rogers, who’s “Rider’s Club Rules” included promoting politeness, obedience, bravery, God and patriotism, Kreger lives by “the Code.” He may not be on the silver screen, but Kreger’s a working cowboy who has taken up the banner of sharing such faith-based values. Best of all, he leads by example. He doesn’t just write about faith, kind- ness, loyalty and the like. He believes it, lives it, and ably sums it up in a line from his poem by the same name.
“It’s a standard of behavior that endures until this day. It’s more ‘bout how you do things than what kind of words you say.”
Joe’s books and CDs are available from the High Plains Journal newspaper by calling 1-800-954-5263. For personal appearance information, call 1-816-452-3513.
Cold Backed He quivers when you catch him. The white of his eye, he shows. He ain’t nobody’s kid horse. He’s got rollers in his nose. You wouldn’t think of steppin’ up until he’s been untracked. He needs a little leadin’, He’s always been cold backed. Put his head up in the corner. Keep the left rein short. Slip on him kinda easy. Don’t worry about the snort. Put him in a circle ‘til the saddle settles down. You wouldn’t land too easy on this frozen ground. The saddle’s settin’ level. Cant’ warm ‘im up all day. Time to go to the pasture and start to earn your pay. Sit up and ride; watch his ears– too soon, yet, to relax. You better keep your guard up ‘til you’ve made a few miles of tracks. Didn’t take all these precautions back when you were a pup. Almost got the edge off, if a pheasant don’t fly up. He’s always been a good ‘un. Got loads of speed and power. You know you’ll be well mounted –in about another hour.
Joe Kreger, from his book Still Lookin’
This article originally appeared in Eclectic Horseman Issue No.40