The year was 1939, the Great Depression was waning and a manager at Montgomery Ward in Chicago decided that the store should create its own children’s book for the annual holiday promotion.
The boss tapped Robert L. May, an ad man for the store, to take a crack at a story. May was a hit at holiday parties for his way with limericks and parodies. But May didn’t see himself as a winner. He had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would.
He came back with the story of an underdog, red-nosed reindeer who was in the right place at the right time — just when Santa needed a reindeer with exceptional skills.
“Can’t you come up with anything better?” the boss asked, according to a May’s 1975 telling in a story published in the Gettysburg Times.
But Bob May believed in the story. He got his friend in the art department to draw up some sketches and, together, they convinced the boss.
Months into the project, May’s wife died from cancer. May became a widower and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off this plate. But May refused. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote.
Remembering his daughter’s love for the deer at the Lincoln Park Zoo, May continued working on this story about a little reindeer with a shiny nose. He thought this creature might become a symbol for himself and Barbara that happier times lay ahead.
He was right!
The book was a hit. Montgomery Ward’s printed and distributed more than 2 million copies that year at branches across the country.
While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was living on a copywriter’s salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife’s medical bills.
After World War II, Montgomery Ward’s then-CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph. (According to his daughter, the boss never thought Rudolph had potential as more than a holiday promotion, but who knows, maybe it was an unprecedented gesture of kindness.)
If ever there was going to be a time for May’s luck to change, this would be it.
It just so happened that May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter. He hadn’t made it big yet, but he was getting there. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. It sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation film.
Thanks to Rudolph — who as they say, went down in history — Bob May’s family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. He always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer and his triumphant tale to the world.
The symbol of hope and optimism that Bob May created for himself and his daughter during those dark times so long ago kept on returning to bless him again and again.
And May learned the lesson, just like his dear friend Rudolph, that being different isn’t so bad. In fact, being different can be a blessing.
Merry Christmas everyone!
[This story has been adapted from an article on npr.org]
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