Bullied at school, he was ridiculed and humiliated by other children because he was smaller than other boys of the same age. Even as he grew up, he was often mistaken for someone’s little brother.
When he left college he became employed as a copywriter with Montgomery Ward, the big Chicago mail order house. He married and in due course, his wife presented him with a daughter. Then when his little daughter was two years old, tragedy struck; his wife was diagnosed with a debilitating disease. She became bedridden and remained so until she died. Nearly everything he earned went on medication and doctor’s bills. Money was short and life was hard.
One evening in early December of 1938 and two years into his wife’s illness, his four-year-old daughter climbed onto his knee and asked, “Daddy, why isn’t Mummy like everybody else’s mummy?” It was a simple question, asked with childlike curiosity. But it struck a personal chord with Robert May.
His mind flashed back to his own childhood. He had often posed a similar question, “Why can’t I be tall, like the other kids?” The stigma attached to those who are different is hard to bear. Groping for something to say to give comfort to his daughter, he began to tell her a story. It was about someone else who was different, ridiculed, humiliated and excluded because of the difference.
Bob told the story in a humorous way, making it up as he went along; in the way that many fathers often do. His daughter laughed, giggled and clapped her hands as the misfit finally triumphed at the end. She then made him start all over again from the beginning and every night after that he had to repeat the story before she would go to sleep.
Because he had no money for fancy presents, Robert decided that he would put the story into book form. He had some artistic talent and he created illustrations. This was to be his daughter’s Christmas present. The book of the story that she loved so much. He converted the story into a poem.
On the night before Christmas Eve, he was persuaded to attend his office Christmas Party. He took the poem along and showed it to a colleague. The colleague was impressed and insisted that Robert read his poem aloud to everyone else at the party. Somewhat embarrassed by the attention, he took the small hand written volume from his pocket and began to read. At first the noisy group listened in laughter and amusement. But then became silent and after he finished, they broke into spontaneous applause.
Later, and feeling quite pleased with himself, he went home, wrapped the book in Christmas wrapping and placed it under the modest Christmas tree. To say that his daughter was pleased with her present would be an understatement. She loved it!
When Robert returned to work after the Holiday, he was summoned to the office of his head of department. He wanted to talk to Bob about his poem. It seemed that word had got out about his reading at the Christmas party. The Head of Marketing was looking for a promotional tool and wondered if Robert would be interested in having his poem published.
The following year, 1939, printed copies of the book were given to every child who visited the department stores of Montgomery Ward and it eventually became an international best seller, making Robert a rich man. His wife had unfortunately died during this time, but he was able to move from the small apartment and buy a big house. He was at last able to provide handsomely for his growing daughter.
The story is not quite over. In 1947, songwriter Johnny Marks used the theme of Robert’s poem for a song. He showed the song to a famous film star of the day, Gene Autry, ‘The Singing Cowboy’. Autry recorded the song and it became a world-wide number one hit. You may just remember it. The first line goes... ”Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer had a very shiny nose...!”