Tell Us a Story, Jonathan Kruk '77

A white man in a top hat vest poses with his hand on his chin

For 35 years, storyteller Jonathan Kruk '77 has been entertaining audiences public and private with tales that range from classic to custom. And in many ways, his life mirrors the stories he tells.

Every October, professional storyteller Jonathan Kruk '77 can be found performing Washington Irving's “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to sold-out crowds at the author’s homestead, Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, New York. Come December, Kruk takes up another classic, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, a performance for which he has received stellar reviews and garnered national acclaim.

Thirty-five years in, Kruk still registers awe that he makes his living storytelling — and not in the 21st-century corporate sense of the term. This is storytelling in the tradition of Aesop and Homer: one man, standing alone, delivering a 12,000-word piece over the course of 90 minutes. No props. No supporting cast. No second takes. Sometimes, the audience is paying and standing room only, others it may be an elementary classroom or the hospital bedside of a sick child.

"I’m blessed,” Kruk says. "It’s a calling."

It’s also quite a story.

A man in a top hat, carrying a cane, poses in front of a photo backdrop
Jonathan Kruk ’77, photographed in Wampus Pond Park in Armonk, New York. (Photo by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross)
Listen to Kruk perform an abridged version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"
Audio file

The great stories are stories of discomfort, Kruk says. Jane Eyre, Pip, Scout, Huck Finn, Harry Potter, Oliver Twist — their trials and tribulations have us tied up in knots, he notes. And the greater the investment in the character, the sweeter the relief when all ends well.

“What’s uncomfortable about The Little Mermaid is she has to give up her voice. What’s discomforting about ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ is that the young woman has to sleep with someone she cannot look at and doesn’t know if that’s a demon or a troll. The discomfort of ‘Cinderella’ is the discomfort of, well, being downtrodden and unrecognized,” Kruk says.

Early on, Kruk made a friend of discomfort, made it work for him, really. Born in El Paso, Texas, he and his family moved several times before settling in Westchester, New York. His father was career Army, a buck sergeant in World War II who ascended to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Moving forced Kruk to overcome his natural shyness: “I figured out how to cope by being somewhat more extroverted, a bit of a performer, even though it went against my nature.”

When it came time for college, Kruk, an Eagle Scout, applied for a Naval ROTC scholarship. At his interview, the 18-year-old was already aware of the power of a good story to overcome unease. That day, Kruk wore his hair neat — but long and in a ponytail — not the typical look for someone seeking an ROTC scholarship. The officer interviewing him wasn’t about to let that go unremarked: “You know your hair is a foot too long.”

“I know,” Kruk replied, “but did you know that John Paul Jones’ sailors used their hair as wicks to light their cannons?"

He grins at the memory. “It could’ve been something I read in one of my father’s military magazines. It could’ve been something apocryphal, but it made for a good story and they were, like, ‘Yeah, we’re accepting this guy.’”

Kruk lasted a year in the ROTC program. “I walked in to drill after being on the Holy Cross Glee Club trip to Puerto Rico and I hadn’t cut my hair. Frankly, I think I was stoned, too. I was sent to be reprimanded.”

The officer Kruk met with said, “You’re an outstanding candidate, an Eagle Scout, but is this program working for you?”

“He was like the magic helper you find in fairy tales,” Kruk says. “You know, those people who come along who are there to provoke. This officer called my father, the lieutenant colonel, and said, ‘You’ve got a wonderful son here. He’s gonna survive; he’s going to do well, but not with the military.’”


Magic helpers come in many guises and Kruk encountered several at Holy Cross. To some he gives epithets, nicknames. There was the “creator of epiphanies,” bestselling author and English faculty member Marilyn French for whom Kruk once circulated a petition to get tenured. (She didn’t.) And then there was the Rev. Arthur Madden, S.J. — “Mad Dog” to his students — who proclaimed that the only permittable use of the passive voice was when referring to God Almighty, as in, “There is a God,” Kruk says. 

Professor Virginia Raguin showed Kruk the interconnectedness of the art, history and literature of the Middle Ages, and when the young English major expressed interest in becoming a children’s book illustrator, Professor Helen Whall offered him space in her classroom to create a mural. The subject of the mural? “A huge tree showing different authors and aspects of writers. It was kind of overwhelming, almost a gaudy thing, I think, in retrospect,” Kruk says. “But she nurtured students that way."

Rev. Gregory Carlson, S.J., taught Greek and Latin literature at Holy Cross from 1974 to 1979. He, too, encouraged students’ creativity, assigning open-ended projects: poems, paintings, a scene from a play inspired by the course material, all were fair game. Fr. Carlson kept one of Kruk’s projects, a two-dimensional depiction of the final scene in the play “Medea,” for decades until, Fr. Carlson says, “Jonathan’s beautiful artwork yielded to the pressure of time and had to go the way of all flesh.

“It so typified Jonathan’s creativity, and his willingness to jump into things,” Fr. Carlson continues. “Holy Cross started me on a 49-year career in teaching and I have not had the pleasure of teaching another storyteller, someone with the gumption to put together a life based around entertaining people. What a deal!”

Fr. Carlson laughs in delight. “It is so encouraging to see someone I got to walk with for a while using his gifts so richly.”

Kruk owes a debt to one other “magical helper,” a fellow student whose name he can no longer remember. He had been walking around Worcester on one of those gray, rainy, 40-degree days and ducked into a used bookstore. Kruk flipped through a collection of fairy tales illustrated by the 19th-century artist Kay Nielsen. “I came to a page with the illustration of a white bear with a forlorn-looking young woman perched upon its back,” he remembers.

It was a scene from “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Norwegian folktale in which a girl goes on a quest to rescue a bear-by-day-human-by-night prince cursed by a witch. Kruk was entranced.

When he returned to campus, Kruk met a friend at one of the basement bars common to the dorms at the time: “She was tall, dark-haired, and I think she was on one of the athletic teams. I mentioned the fairy tale and not only was she aware of the story, but she knew the whole thing and, with a Narragansett beer in hand, she relayed the whole story. I was transfixed and knew I wanted to tell that story to kids.”


In fairy tales, three is the magic number. Three wishes. Three bowls of porridge. Three pigs, three bears, three Billy Goats Gruff. Oftentimes three enumerates the impossible: three tasks an often orphaned and usually poor young girl or boy must accomplish, such as scaling a giant beanstalk, spinning straw into gold or earning a living as an oral storyteller in the 21st century. That sort of thing.

Classmate William Correa ’77 was one of the first friends with whom Kruk shared his professional aspirations. “He said he wanted to be a storyteller; I said I wanted to go to Mars,” Correa says.

Correa and Kruk met in their junior year. They bonded over a fundamental counterculturalism and built a near-50-year friendship on mutual admiration. Correa’s sister encouraged Kruk to get a master’s in educational theater at NYU, which he earned in 1982.

In the years between graduation and full-time employment as a storyteller, Kruk worked as a traveling camp counselor, assisted Correa in renovating condos in Soho and watered office plants of the famous and infamous. Clients included ESPN, Fujitsu, Henry Kissinger and a member of La Cosa Nostra. Of Kissinger, Kruk says that the former national security advisor and secretary of state never spoke to Kruk directly. When he had concerns about office greenery, Kissinger would address them to his secretary, asking her to tell “the plant man” this or that. And so it went for a decade until a school superintendent heard a tape Kruk had made and hired him as a substitute teacher storyteller.

Listen as Kruk joins the Holy Cross Magazine podcast to talk about the mysteries behind Irving's classic, how stories can bring comfort, and much more.
Audio file

“In ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon,’ the heroine has to get the South, the North and the East Winds to carry her to the land east of the sun and west of the moon. By the same token, I had to be blown by these varied winds — as a construction worker, a plant man, a traveler cross-country — not knowing what I was going to do while all my college friends were getting corporate jobs or going to law or medical school.”

Kruk sighs, then smiles. “It took me a long time to become a professional storyteller,” he notes.

Correa has seen his friend perform many times over the years. “He can create this silence,” Correa says. “The kids get so much out of what he does. I look at them and see it’s life-changing. And the disruptive ones, the bullies and the troublemakers, they don’t have a chance. Jonathan just changes the dynamic, makes them part of the show.”

The stories I read and the way they’re presented invite me to open my eyes. Fables are asking you to perceive things better; they’re challenging you to do that.

Jonathan Kruk '77

This isn’t the happily-ever-after moment in the story, though. It’s more like the second act.

David Sedaris aside, professional storytelling is no path to riches, fame or even respect, necessarily. The relationship between society and the artist is an uneasy one, one that exposes an old, even ancient, gripe: Work shouldn’t be fun. Consider Aesop’s “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” A refresher: The grasshopper, a musician, begs an ant for food and is turned away hungry for, depending on the interpreter, laziness, lack of foresight or engaging in a fruitless pursuit. Kruk knows what it feels like to be the grasshopper.

“As a child, I related to him. I acknowledged the benefit of hard work, but I thought the ant was being a bit stingy there. And as a young man, I would think, I really do need to be like that ant and stash some reserves away, but it was always difficult. I’ve been able to get by, at times even thrive, but it wasn’t as if I was making enough to put up stores like the ant,” Kruk says.

Some storytellers see “The Ant and the Grasshopper” differently. In one contemporary version, the insects are replaced by mice, one of whom sings and tells stories to sustain his family over a long winter. Kruk relates to this, too.

He’ll tell you of Megan, the young girl who, for five years, would come see him at a medieval fair and beg to be his apprentice. Her mother would apologize for the girl’s pestering him. Megan wanted a Cinderella story of her own, one in which a gawky, frizzy-haired heroine, teased for being goofy, awkward and dirty, grows up to become a Taylor Swift. And there was the man with schizophrenia who asked if Kruk could tell a story of a man who beat back the voices in his head because he’d tried to drown them with drink and choke them with smoke but it hadn’t worked. And then there was the boy who wanted pirates, blood and death.

“There was a program at a children’s hospital. Artists would go and paint or make music with the children,” Kruk recalls. “I would go to a child’s bed and ask them to give me five things and I’d weave a story based on that. One boy, he was about 13 or 14, terminally ill, just wanted pirate stories. The most despicable, blood-thirsty, beheading-crazy, horrid pirates. I asked his parents why he wanted these horrible stories.”

He wants to hear of deaths worse than his, the parents told him.

“So that’s what I ended up doing. And toward the end of his life, when he was in hospice, I would ask, ‘Wouldn’t you like to hear about the Little Mermaid? And he would say, ‘No, I wanna hear about the cruel one who beheaded all those other pirates on the Spanish ship and lived to tell the tale.’ “It was profoundly moving to do that for him,” Kruk says.


There’s a Pied Piper air about Jonathan Kruk. He’s a walking anachronism — by design. The long hair, the sideburns down to there, the impressive array of waistcoats, top hats and puffy shirts — “I look like I’m from the 19th century,” Kruk quips. 

It works for him. He’s been featured on “CBS Sunday Morning” and “The Today Show.” The New York Times waxes about his “way with the spoken word, the telling gesture, the sprinkling of humor and the appropriate costume for a smorgasbord of stories.” The third graders of Rye Country Day School in New York agree. “We were inspired by how energetic and enthusiastic you were during your presentation,” one young critic wrote. “We like how you connected your storytelling to what we are learning and how you used your voice and dress to show us what people were like back in the 1600s.” 

In 2021, Kruk took on a new long-term gig. He’s the storyteller-in-residence of the Archdiocese of New York. The superintendent of the Archdiocese’s Catholic schools had seen Kruk’s Sleepy Hollow show and told Kruk he wanted to wake the kids up, draw their attention away from their screens.

“It’s been a wonderful journey to go from schools in the bowels of the Bronx to the beautiful, riverside community of Kingston, New York, to tell kids stories,” Kruk says. “And I’ve plumbed some of my experiences at Holy Cross to share the parables of Jesus or the lives of the saints, along with the traditional curriculum.

Man in hat and cane prepares to throw a pumpkin
Kruk's one-man performances draw sellout crowds to Sleepy Hollow each fall.
Man in top hat and coat smiles in front of an audience
Performing another annual classic, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” in the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

“At this point in my career, 35 years as a full-time storyteller, it’s really revived my calling. You know, at night I would lie in bed worried that Jesus was going to come and say, ‘Jonathan, you need to be a priest.’ And I would think, No, please, I don’t wanna be a priest, but if I have to, I’ll do it. But instead of being a priest, I became a storyteller."

Perhaps that’s the difference between a job and a calling; a calling gives back. Now in his ninth decade of life, Fr. Carlson, still teaching and collecting fables, holds that stories sustain life itself: “I think life is about invitations and I think a good school, a school like Holy Cross, teaches someone to listen, to reflect and to respond to invitations — all three of which are pretty countercultural things,” Fr. Carlson says. “The stories I read and the way they’re presented invite me to open my eyes. Fables are asking you to perceive things better; they’re challenging you to do that. And fables are a way of playing with story, and we play our way into insight by considering a fable. It’s a lot more fun than sitting down and analyzing something. We hear a story that sort of jolts us, and we get to think about who we are in that story. Or, where am I in this story? Anyway, you asked what stories, what fables have done for me? At the age of 81, they’re keeping me alive.”

Kruk understands this, too.

“Many of my colleagues are retiring while I’m enjoying a renaissance, a blooming,” he says. “It continues to be a blessing to go to schools, libraries, historic sites and festivals to tell stories. I recently met a boy whose family came from Canada to see my Sleepy Hollow show and the boy was dressed as the Headless Horseman. He was autistic.”

The boy had watched Kruk’s many Instagram videos during lockdown. 

“And he comes up to me and says, ‘Mr. Kruk, you’re my world’s favorite storyteller. During the pandemic, I loved your stories. They gave me hope.’ And I knew he’d rehearsed this. And the boy’s father and I burst into tears,” he says. “That boy showed me that even though I haven’t achieved financial freedom, and I’m not a famous children’s book author or children’s entertainer, still, I have these moments, moments that happen almost every day. And that is the blessing, the redemption, the salvation, the payment.

“That is the gold.”