A man named Robert L. May, depressed and broken-hearted, stared out his drafty apartment window into the chilling December night. His 4-year-old daughter Barbara sat on his lap quietly sobbing. Bob’s wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. Little Barbara couldn’t understand why her mommy could never come home. Barbara looked up into her dad’s eyes and asked, “Why isn’t Mommy just like everybody else’s Mommy?” Bob’s jaw tightened and his eyes welled with tears. Her question brought waves of grief, but also of anger. It had been the story of Bob’s life.
Life always had to be different for Bob. When he was a kid, Bob was often bullied by other boys. He was too little at the time to compete in sports. He was often called names he’d rather not remember. From childhood, Bob was different and never seemed to fit in.
After completing college, he had married his loving wife Evelyn and was grateful to get a job as a copywriter at the Montgomery Ward Department Store, in Chicago, during the Great Depression. Then he was blessed with his little girl. But it was all short-lived. Evelyn’s bout with cancer stripped them of all their savings and now Bob and his daughter were forced to live in a two-room apartment in the poorer area of Chicago. Evelyn died just days before Christmas in 1938.
Bob struggled to give hope to his child, for whom he couldn’t even afford to buy a Christmas gift. So he determined a make one – a storybook! Bob had created an animal character in his own mind and told the animal’s story to little Barbara to give her comfort and hope. Again and again, Bob told the story, embellishing it more with each telling.
Who was the character? What was the story all about?
The story Bob May created was his own autobiography in fable form. The character he created was a misfit outcast like he was. The name of the character? A little reindeer named Rudolph, with a big shiny nose. He had considered the names, Reginald, Romeo or Rollo before landing on Rudolph.
He finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl on Christmas Day. But the story doesn’t end there.
The general manager of Montgomery Ward caught wind of the little storybook and offered Bob May a nominal fee to purchase the rights to print the book. They went on to print, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and distribute it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores. By 1946, the store had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph. That same year, a major publisher wanted to purchase the rights from the store to print an updated version of the book.
In an unprecedented gesture of kindness, the CEO of Montgomery Ward returned all rights back to Bob May. The book became a best seller.
Many toy and marketing deals followed and Bob May, now remarried with a growing family, became wealthy from the story he created to comfort his grieving daughter.
But the story doesn’t end there either. Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, a struggling artist at the time, made a song adaptation for Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of “White Christmas.”
The gift of love that Bob May created for his daughter so long ago kept on returning back to bless him again and again. And Bob May learned the lesson, just like Rudolph, that endurance in times of struggle is one of the key ingredients of leadership – as is the willingness to be different.
Merry Christmas everyone.
A special thanks to my friend Ron Posno for sending this account along this Christmas.