A creative spark, hard work and luck overcome tough times

Diane Mack
Family Matters
Diane Mack

A few days ago, I was driving west on Interstate 70 when I noticed Sterling Avenue on the north side of the highway.  

I looked to the south of the road, and I flashed back to Montgomery Ward and the Blue Ridge Mall. 

What fond memories I had of Christmas shopping at Montgomery Ward. They had great sales.  

My last trip there was a month before they closed. I had purchased one beautiful dress and also, some ladies' sleepwear. What sweet memories indeed!  

My mind wondered a little farther to Montgomery Ward’s part in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer history. 

Why not? It’s 30 days until Christmas. 

Perhaps many of you know the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s not, here we go.  

It was the late thirties, and Robert May wasn’t feeling too well. 

He had always hoped to write the great American novel. Instead, he wound up writing about men’s white shirts, as a catalog writer at Montgomery Ward in Chicago.  

Robert was despondent, as his wife was very ill with cancer. He was feeling downtrodden about his present life. He was 35 and heavily in debt. 

Adding to it, May had grown up as a “shy” and “small” boy, who “knew what it was like to be an underdog.” 

It was at this point, in 1939, when he received a new assignment from Montgomery Ward. He was commissioned to dream up a character for their upcoming Christmas coloring book. 

The department store had always given away free books to kids each Christmas. Robert May was to come up with a new book story. 

Robert decided to write about a friendless reindeer.  All of his personal hardships helped in the story of the weeping, lonesome reindeer.  

After brainstorming the names of Rollo, Rodney, Roland, Roderick and Reggy, May thought Rudolph would be a great name for the character in his book.  

Just then, Robert came up with the story of Rudolph, a reindeer with an abnormally large, shiny, red nose who gets teased by the other reindeer.  

And one foggy Christmas Eve, Santa realizes Rudolph’s glowing snout is the beacon he needs so that he can deliver presents to children on time. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was born. 

Montgomery Ward printed more than 2 million copies of Robert May's book that year. He received letters from children, teachers, and store managers from across the country.  

While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was still living on a copywriter's salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife's medical bills.  

According to NPR, “After World War II, Montgomery Ward's CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren't exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph, which they previously held.” 

It was reported that “the bosses never thought Rudolph had potential as more than a holiday promotion.” However, most think, for the sake of a cute little Christmas tale, that May’s humanity won him over. 

Shortly thereafter, with help from May’s brother-in-law, who just happened to be a songwriter, May eventually turned Rudolph into a song, one picked up by a famous cowboy. By 1985, the song had sold 150 million records and 8 million sheet music copies worldwide.  

Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May's family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond.  

May always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer. Therefore, during your next foggy Christmas Eve, remember Santa’s words.  

"Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won't you guide my sleigh tonight? 

“Then how the reindeer loved him, as they shouted out with glee … Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you'll go down in history.” 

Diane Mack is coordinator of Putting Families First, Jackson County's Family Week Foundation. Email her at Director@jacksoncountyfamilyweek.org.