Saturday, September 5, 2020

Shiny Nose: The Story of Robert L. May, the Creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

“I wish the world was a brighter place,” said Robert May, working on his latest copywriter assignment at Montgomery Ward, a successful Chicago mail order house. 

It was 1939, and many families were still feeling the effects of the Great Depression.

Instead of making the annual coloring book, Robert was trying to draft an original Christmas story about an animal with holiday cheer. 

Of course, the tale had to involve Santa Claus and his sleigh. 

“I think the poem should be about a reindeer,” Robert imagined, thinking about his daughter Barbara’s love for deer. 

“A reindeer?” doubted Sewell Avery, CEO of Montgomery Ward. “Are you sure that this is going to work?” 

“I always wanted to write the Great American Novel. I think I’m onto something with the reindeer,” Robert insisted. 

“Rollo, or Reginald, or Rudolph? I’m sort of leaning toward Rudolph. I think it’s the most original.” 

“Rudolph is definitely an original,” Mr. Avery quipped. “I would have never thought of a reindeer named Rudolph.”

Coming home from work that evening, Robert sighed at the tiny, unkept two-bedroom Chicago apartment.  

“How are you feeling today, Evelyn?” Robert asked, kissing his wife on the cheek. She had been bedridden from cancer for the past two years. “I’ve been working on my poem about Rudolph the reindeer all day again . . .” 

“The reindeer with the shiny nose?” his wife wheezed. “I hope it’s a big hit with the shoppers.” 

“Dad, let me hear the latest version!” Barbara, his daughter proclaimed, running to hug her father.  

“I’ll read it to you before bed tonight,” her father promised, hugging her tightly. “Let’s eat some dinner now.” 

After dinner, Barbara crawled into bed, in tears, wondering: “Why is Mom different than other moms?” 

“She loves you very much, Barbara,” Robert cried softly, holding his daughter. “Let’s read about Rudolph.” 

As Robert read to her about a reindeer named Rudolph with a very shiny nose, she fell asleep. He wasn’t sure if she heard the part about how everyone used to make fun of the creature. After all, reindeers were not supposed to have big shiny red noses, and it embarrassed Rudolph every time he was teased for being different than everyone else.  

As the story went on, even Rudolph’s family ridiculed him for his nose calling him “a red-nosed reindeer.” Since the outcast was the ninth and youngest of Santa’s reindeer, like many children, it made the reindeer easy to pick on.  

“I have to figure out what good can come of Rudolph’s nose,” Robert whispered, kissing his daughter goodnight. “Most days, I feel almost like the out-of-place reindeer. I might as well be as awkward as Rudolph . . .”

Later in the week, Mr. Avery agreed to consider drawings from Denver Gillan from the company art department. 

“Show me something that will really work!” Mr. Avery demanded. “Every child has to love Rudolph!” 

“Yes sir,” Robert agreed. “I’ll spend the whole weekend at the zoo with Denver, if that’s what we have to do!” 


“Come on Barbara, we’re off to the zoo, so we can make some drawings of the deer,” Robert explained when Saturday morning rolled around. “We’re making drawings of Rudolph. You can even help color his nose!” 

“See you later tonight,” his wife coughed. “Have a great day together. I’ll miss you. Wish I could come.” 

For most of the afternoon, Robert held Barbara on top of his shoulders, as Denver sketched the first Rudolph. Barbara filled in Rudolph’s nose with a red crayon.

“Oh, I wish that deer would turn his head,” Denver pleaded. “Look this way!”

“Merry Christmas!” Barbara called, as the reindeer looked right at her.

The next week, Robert sat at his desk, scribbling on pads of paper and throwing them in the trash can.  

As he stared out the window, he could not see through a thick fog from Lake Michigan.

“I’ve got it!” he concluded. “Rudolph’s nose can shine like a spotlight through the fog on Christmas Eve, so Santa can make his deliveries.” 

When the phone rang, and Robert heard his wife’s mother on the line, he felt sick to his stomach. 

“Robert, you need to come to the hospital right away,” his mother-n-law insisted, crying. “Evelyn just died. I can hardly believe it.”

“How am I going to tell Barbara that her mother has passed away?” he sobbed. “I’m on my way to the hospital.”

When he laid eyes on his daughter in a hospital waiting room chair, she cried and cried and collapsed in his arms, kicking and yelling.  

“It’s going to be all right,” Robert assured. “Do you want to hear about Rudolph? The story is almost finished.” 

“No, I don’t want to hear about Rudolph,” Barbara blamed him. “He’s not real. He’s just a stupid reindeer.” 

“Well, Rudolph is about as real as I can get right now,” Robert cried with tears, hugging his daughter. “I love you, dear.”

“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Barbara apologized. “I love you. I love Mom, too.”


After his wife’s funeral at Saint Joseph Cemetery in River Grove of Cook County, Illinois, Mr. Avery insisted that Robert didn’t have to finish the Rudolph poem, if he wasn’t up to it. Instead, he sent flowers to the apartment.  

“Look, you can take a couple weeks off,” Mr. Avery communicated by phone. “Forget about Rudolph for a while.” 

“Thanks, but I think it’s wiser that I finish the story,” Robert insisted on the telephone. “I need Rudolph.” 

“If you think so,” his boss stammered. “I know it’s a really hard time for you, and I don’t want you to feel stressed.” 

“It’s fun for me, actually,” Robert rambled. “It keeps my mind on other things, and Barbara likes the story, I think.” 

After a few more weeks of writing, Robert burst through his apartment door one evening to find Barbara eating dinner with her mother’s parents. 

“I finished the story about Rudolph!” Robert exclaimed, hanging up his coat. 

He pulled up a chair to the table, reading the draft aloud, explaining that Santa Claus would have never made it on his annual trip around the world on Christmas Eve without Rudolph’s very shiny nose, due to foggy weather conditions. 

All the other reindeer, like Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen, who used to laugh and call Rudolph names, are now in awe of their youngest brother who helps to save Christmas because Rudolph leads the sleigh through the sky.

“That’s great, Dad,” Barbara cheered. “I wish Rudolph was real, and I could meet him. Mom would be so happy.”

“You never know how something that was once a great shame can be turned into a miracle,” Robert announced. 

“If you say so, Dad,” Barbara agreed quietly, jumping on his lap. “How are the pictures of Rudolph coming?” 

“We’re working on it,” Robert explained, showing her the latest sketches. “The book should be out for Christmas.” 

“Well, if nobody else likes the story, I like it,” Barbara encouraged him. “It’s my favorite Christmas story ever!”


By Christmas, 2.4 million copies of the poem were distributed to Montgomery Ward shoppers to great success. 

“To think that people used to laugh and call Rudolph all kinds of names,” Robert chuckled to himself. “That’s not happening anymore!”

By 1947, after Montgomery Ward gave Robert the rights to his story, Maxton Publishers, a small New York publishing company, printed a copy of the Rudolph book, and it was a best seller. 

Even Robert’s brother-in-law named Johnny Marks adapted the story into a famous song called “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” causing animated television specials, postage stamps, stuffed animals, comic books, games, and all kinds of memorabilia.  

“What would Christmas be without Rudolph?” Robert asked himself every year for many decades. “Rudolph is almost as important as Santa Claus. I think his nose made the world a little brighter after all.” 


Copyright 2023 Jennifer Waters

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