I have always been a fan of the underdog. William Wallace, in Braveheart– even though you KNEW that wasn’t going to end well- no matter how good Mel Gibson looked in a kilt.
Giuseppe “Pino” Puglisi, a Catholic priest who lived in Brancaccio, Spain, and single-handily took on the local Sicilian Mafia. At the age of 16, he joined the Seminary with the primary goal of fighting against crime and corruption. Puglisi urged children to go to school instead of joining criminal groups and even built them a soccer field to help combat boredom. Puglisi is well known for his humorous but passionate sermons where he would call out the Sicilian Mafia and the politicians working with them. He even refused to allow known Mafia leaders to lead religious processions as it had become an unwelcomed tradition. On September 15, 1993, Puglisi’s birthday, two hitmen approached him in front of his parish. Puglisi greeted the men saying, “I’ve been expecting you.” These would be the last words that he would ever speak. One of the hitmen then fired a single bullet at point-blank range. Puglisi was rushed to the hospital, where doctors were unable to revive him. It was this even that the Catholic Church finally condemned the Mafia. Puglisi was declared a real-life martyr in 2012.
Another story is about Andre Therrien, who in 2015 got a phone call saying that he owed $700 on a payday loan that he never took out. The debt collectors wouldn’t back down, going so far as threatening to rape Therrien’s wife. This made him so mad that he started investigating the U.S. debt collection industry, a rabbit hole of shady people who would kill for $1,000.00.
According to Federal Reserve research, Americans are currently late on more than $600 billion in bills, and almost one person in 10 has a debt in collectors’ hands. The companies recoup what they can and contract the rest down-market, so that more suspicious and darker individuals buy iffier and iffier debt. Deception is common. Scammers frequently sell the same portfolios of debt, called “paper,” to numerous collection agencies at once, so a verifiable IOU gains illegitimate clones. Some increase balances, a method is known as “overbiffing.” Others devise “redo” lists—people who’ve resolved their debt but are harassed again anyway. These records are more precious because the victims have proved willing to part with money over the phone.
Working while his family slept and while watching Sunday Night Football, Therrien was able to track the funds to Joel Tucker in Kansas City, who had ‘packaged 7.7 million in fake debt through loan packages and sold it to the shadiest bidders’. Therrien sent all of his evidence to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), and Tucker was found guilty and ordered to pay back an astonishing 34.2 million. Therrien accomplished all this from his home office- I love the underdogs!
Middle-aged men taking on organized crime- it warms the heart!
But, by far- one of my most favorite underdogs is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As a kid watching the movie, I remember sitting on the brown couch in our home in California, eating popcorn and drinking hot cocoa. I remember the Island of misfit toys, feeling like I understood them because I was considered a misfit. That story spoke to me- I could be more! I could conquer all the bullies at school! I could become popular! At least until December 26- and then it was back to reality. It was a magical feeling and one that, throughout the years that I have held onto during Christmas. Of course, it was a by-product of the original poem- but that poem inspired the most fantastic Christmas movie!
As I have gotten older and started my journey into the true stories of lives behind the myths, I decided to look into Rudolph’s story, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The inspiration, you can say, into finding that feeling that I use to get as a child. Now, before I start- please find a tissue. Warm-up that cup of coffee (or cocoa), find your favorite blanket- because this is a story of an underdog behind the story of an underdog (under-reindeer? is that a word?)
The Great Depression had been hard on all Americans. It had been four years of hell (1929-1933), and by 1939 it seemed that the country had gotten its feet back underneath it. In Chicago in 1938, Montgomery Ward’s manager decided that the store should produce its own children’s book for the annual holiday promotion. Up to this point, Montgomery Ward had been buying coloring books from other companies and giving them away to children who visited the store. It was extremely popular with the locals, but as you can imagine- very expensive.
Robert May, an ad man for the store, was the sure winner for the job. He was known for his limericks and parodies, his words able to bring buyers in with his quick wit and undeniable reach to every potential buyer. It is not what Robert wanted for his life; he wanted to be a writer of the next great American novel- but he was having a hard time at it. I feel for him; I understand! Damn novels. But, lucky for us…Robert took on the challenge and started writing the original manuscript for Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.
Got your tissue? Good. A few days before Christmas in 1938, while writing the American classic Christmas story, Robert’s wife, Evelyn, dies of cancer, leaving him a widower, a single father of a little girl (4-year-old Barbara), and the owner of costly medical bills. The family was forced to move to a two-bedroom apartment in the Chicago slums. His boss offers to take away the project and let him focus on recovering from this sudden tragedy, but Robert refuses and later wrote that “I needed Rudolph now more than ever.”
The story was influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Duckling’ (I had no idea that Andersen wrote the Ugly Duckling- did you?), and his own childhood experiences of not being liked, being bullied. He wanted to create a story where the underdog came out on top, but when he presented the book to his company they didn’t buy into the concept. The idea of having a reindeer with a red nose concerned them for one weird reason- generally, red noses are a sign of alcoholism. The managers did not want a story that seemed to romanticize drinking.
Did this stop Robert? NO! He rallied and grabbed his friend, Denver Gillen, who the art department employed, and they took a field trip to the local Lincoln Park Zoo. The two of them spent some time watching the reindeer while Denver made a series of sketches. These sketches brought the true meaning of the story to life, and it was the tipping point needed for the company to approve the storyline. Off to the publishers, it went!
That year (1939), the story distributed over 2.4 million copies, and by 1946 over 6 million copies had been passed out. Of a coloring book, that many copies are a holiday miracle due to the serve paper shortage in the country because of the war. This speaks volumes about how much Rudolph meant to the American people. It was fitting, I think- the end of WW1, the recovery from the Great Depression, the start of WW2- the American people NEEDED the story of an underdog becoming something bigger and better. The children needed to know that they would be alright if they just kept trying, parents need to know that their sacrifices would make a difference, society needed a hero!
The story gets better… In 1946, Robert was drowning in medical bills. He didn’t make a lot of money as a copywrite, but you know who was? Montgomery Ward- off of the story of Rudolph! Robert went to the CEO, Sewell Avery, and asked if the company would help him pay his wife’s medical bills off of the profits they were getting from the story. Pretty bold if you ask me, not sure if I would have had the guts. Montgomery Ward does something strange, a bit of a Christmas miracle if you ask me, they give him the copyright to the story! In other words, Robert was now the sole owner of his book. Everyone- a deep breath of relief!
Side note- no one knows why they gave Robert the copyright to the story. Maybe they didn’t think that it wouldn’t become more than a holiday promotion. Perhaps they believed that Rudolph would fade into history. Maybe it was a Christmas miracle. BUT- ‘No one else was in the room where it happened. (Hamilton quote for my sister Jodee, because all deals are made behind closed doors)
The story that you and I know, the one that we sing to in the car and while decorating the tree- is not the story that Robert wrote. Shocker! Don’t worry; I will post the link to the original story for you. That song was written by Johnny Marks and recorded by Gene Autry. It is second only to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas,’ but here is the twist of fate that we have come to love. Johnny Marks was Robert’s brother-in-law!
The movie that we love was produced by Rankin/Bass and narrated by Burl Ives, and was aired in 1964. Still an American favorite today.
Robert ended up quitting his job at Montgomery ward in 1951, and for seven years, he looked after Rudolph and his story. But, when he felt Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer firmly established- he went back to Montgomery Ward and worked for the company until 1971!!!!! Talk about loyalty on both parties.
That is it my friends, the story of the underdog who ended up writing the a American classic about a underdog. It is heartwarming, it is positive, and the story has gone down in history.
As always my friends, if you found anything interesting in this blog- I invite you to research it some more on your own. There are so many side stories- that I would never be able to tell them all.
And remember- Be Great at something you are Good at!
Click here to read the original story- it is pretty good if you ask me.
Writing ‘Rudolph’: The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript : NPR