The story of a young reindeer named Rudolph (and his very shiny nose) is known by millions of people of all ages all around the world. Have you ever wondered where that tale came from - what mind created such a beloved character? Would you believe some fella from Illinois came up with it? It seems unlikely, but it's true.

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The Man Behind Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

This story begins way back in 1939 in Chicago, IL, with a man named Robert (Bob) May. Bob was 34 years old, working as a catalog writer for the Montgomery Ward department store. It was the end of the Great Depression, so you can imagine how tough times were for everyone, including Bob, who had a young daughter at home along with a wife dying of cancer.

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Montgomery Ward wanted to create its own Christmas story, one that included a loveable character. They asked Bob to take on the assignment, and that's when he came up with the idea of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The story of Rudolph kind of mirrors Bob's own childhood. No, he never was a flying reindeer with a glowing red nose, but he did feel like an outcast growing up. Bob skipped a couple of grades, which meant he was younger and smaller than the rest of his classmates. He felt like a loser as a kid, and that was the inspiration for Rudolph.

Bob's wife passed away while he was writing the book, and his manager offered to give the assignment to another writer. The widower and single father refused, saying "I needed Rudolph now more than ever."

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Rudolph Was a Hit

Bob finished the story of Rudolph in time for Montgomery Ward to hand out copies for Christmas. It was an instant hit. The department store handed out two million free copies during that first year, which was great news for Montgomery Ward - that was not the case for Bob May, who was buried in the debt of his wife's medical bills. He did the best he could but struggled to get by on a copywriter's salary. This is where the story takes an awesome, Christmas miracle type of turn.

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On January 1st, 1947, Montgomery Ward transferred the copywriter for Rudolph back to Bob. Until this point, the books had only been given away by the department store, but now Bob would finally be able to sell his story, which he did for 50 cents a copy. That outcast, underdog reindeer with a very shiny nose would go on to change Bob's life forever.

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How About That Song?

That's a pretty neat story too. Bob May's brother-in-law (Bob was remarried at this point) was a songwriter named Johnny Marks, and he wanted to turn the story of Rudolph into a little ditty, which he did. Gene Autry was the first person they asked to sing the song. Gene initially said no until his wife persuaded him (she made him do it) to record the song. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" became a huge hit and sold nearly 2 million copies in the first year. Within just a few years, "Rudolph" had become the second best-selling Christmas song ever, proving once again that our wives really do know what's best for us.

[h/t: nrp.org and chicagotribune.com]

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