The following was originally published in the 2018, Issue-1, of the Retiree Guardian, newsletter of the CenturyLink Retirees, and is published here with the permission of the author, Don Warsavage
Don Warsavage’s “Person-to-Person“
“Hello? Yes, this is Santa”
The telephone and its variations from push-to-talk to smartphones plays a role in each of our daily lives that continues to fill us with stories that become especially poignant for those who worked for Ma Bell in the era that created the stories which remain more awesome than any tales of fiction. Many of our stories have connections across moments in time. This story is just one of those moments.
My appreciation to Jody Georgeson of the Telephone History Group, 931 Fourteenth Street, Denver, for this wonderful story.
Back in December 1955, the Cold War was fully engaged. Colonel Harry Shoup and his crew in Colorado Springs were on duty at CONAD, watching for any Russian intrusions threatening the United States or Canada. CONAD stood for Continental Air Defense Command, which later morphed into NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
On a day near Christmas, Colonel Shoup’s phone rang. He answered, expecting instructions or commands. Instead, he heard a tiny female voice ask, “Is this Santa Claus?” After a pause, Shoup answered, “Yes it is …have you been a good little girl?”
After that, calls came flooding into CONAD from kids all over the Colorado Springs area. Shoup instructed his staff to answer, and let the kids know where Santa was on his Christmas Eve journey.
That’s one version of the story. There are others. In fact, the story has become legendary, appearing in many major magazines and newspapers across the country. The theme of the story remains the same but the details change. For example, one story says that the little girl misdialed when the call arrived at Colonel Shoup’s CONAD desk. Others say that the number was a misprint in the Colorado Springs newspaper.
Now, of course, it’s a wonderful tradition known as NORAD Tracks Santa. However, its operation is quite a bit larger than a crew commander and his staff. NORAD Tracks Santa has become a magical and global phenomenon delighting generations of families everywhere.
The Atlantic magazine reported in a December 2015 article that on Christmas Eve the website, NORAD Tracks Santa, gets around 20 million contacts. About 1,200 volunteers answer about 120,000 personal calls to Santa from 200 different countries. On social media, NORAD Tracks Santa picks up about 150,000 Twitter followers. Many of the volunteers who respond to callers are military personnel. Interesting to note that for six years running, one of those volunteers was former First Lady Michelle O’Bama.
Although there are other versions of this story, there’s never been any question that Shoup’s creative response got the whole thing rolling. In fact, he earned the nickname, “The Santa Colonel.” He passed away in 2009.
Before now, none of the versions of how it all began showed any major role by the phone company.
However, we have a first-hand witness who tells how Mountain Bell was an unwitting, yet major contributor, to the beginnings of this wonderful program.
John Shepherd is our eyewitness to history. He retired from AT&T in 1986. Shepherd was a Marketing Representative employed by Mountain Bell in Colorado Springs in 1955. He was hired from Colorado State University on an accelerated development program for high-potential candidates.
Here’s the narrative that Shepherd sent to the Telephone History Group of the CONAD Santa events of 1955 — as he remembered them.
The 1950’s were the beginning of many new inventions from Bell Laboratories, including the answering machine. It was not a well-developed technology at that time. The one sponsored by Bell Companies was called time-of-day service.
Company leadership decided that the new answering machine should be tried out in Colorado Springs. The device itself was a clunky-looking box full of vacuum tubes wires and magnetic recording equipment. No one expected easy sales for it. Shepherd decided to give the device a go, and he contacted his business clients in the city. Most could see no value in such a thing except for one man at Sears, who was not completely negative.
Shepherd said, “How about using it to get after hours calls?” The Sears rep countered, “That’s no good. People can always wait till morning and call back.”
Shepherd felt he was losing the sale, then an idea came to him. He said, “Since it’s so close to Christmas, how about using it after hours and putting a message on it like, “Ho! Ho! Ho! This is Santa Claus at Sears. Get your folks to bring you to Sears and tell me what you want for Christmas! Ho! Ho! Ho!”
The Sears representative agreed to try it, and the machine was installed. The number was not published to the public since it would only be used for a short time during the holidays. But, Sears did list it in the local paper.
The day after it was listed, Shepherd came to work and was rewarded with a tongue-lashing from his boss because of what had happened.
When the kids found out they could call a phone number and hear Santa, the word spread throughout the city.
Everybody wanted to try it. Thousands were trying to reach that one number. The Colorado Springs Central Office was overwhelmed. The call volume slowed down all phone traffic. Some calls were not getting through. The Mountain Bell Traffic Superintendent had to call in people on an emergency basis to physically disable some equipment to get the traffic flowing on a somewhat normal basis.
Shepherd went right over to Sears. He found the calls still coming in at a record pace. Two telephone repairmen were on the scene. They had the cover off the machine and were holding electric fans to cool it down. They were afraid it would burn out at any minute. Other machines were sent for in case this one failed. Shepherd remarked that the way the repairmen glared at him they were thinking, “So, you’re the genius that caused this mess.”
As Shepherd stated in his notes about the incident, “The Santa Claus thing took on a life of its own. The number was passed around by word of mouth. Then, probably as a joke, a note was left at CONAD, on a general’s desk asking the general to call the number.”
The general complied. He called and got a busy signal. He tried again. And again. And again. After all, he was a general; it could be important. He called the operator and asked if he could find out who the number belonged to. The operator replied, “I’m sorry sir, the number is classified as ‘Non-published.’ We’re not allowed to give out that information.”
The general, was not about to accept that. He called the Mountain Bell Colorado Springs Commercial Manager, the local guy who could speak for all departments and should be able help. That manager was Robert K. Timothy, future (and the last) President of Mountain Bell.
Shepherd wasn’t sure how the conversation went, but Timothy probably said something like, “General, I wouldn’t be too concerned about not getting through to that number. You were trying along with a lot of kids to talk to Santa Claus.”
Shepherd was a Korean combat veteran and said he was happy not to have been in the room with the general when he heard that.
Shepherd suggests that when Christmas season gets near, go to the website, “Does NORAD Really Track Santa?” ”There you will find NORAD’s version of how it all began.
Shepherd and the erstwhile Sears representative remember it a little differently.
The official NORAD Santa Tracker can be found at https://www.noradsanta.org/en/
Categories: Don Warsavage - Person to Person