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‘The Santa Colonel’: How One Air Force Officer Turned A Sears Ad Typo Into A Holiday Tradition
This December 24, 2012 photo shows a woman monitoring the progress of Santa Claus in Washington, DC. The Santa tracker at right is set up by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a US-Canada joint operation, the other is by the search engine giant Google. For the past five years, NORAD’s main partner has been Google. But after discussing the project with Google this year, Davis said, the two groups had different visions for the future of the tracker program and agreed to go their separate ways. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images)
KAREN BLEIER/AFP via Getty Images

In 1955, Air Force Colonel Harry Shoup had a very important job. It was the height of the Cold War, and Shoup was working at the Continental Air Defense Command — now known as the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

One December day, his phone rang, but it wasn’t his regular phone. It was the red phone — the phone that had a number so secret that only he and a four-star general at the Pentagon knew of its existence. But when he answered the phone, a child was on the other end.

“Is this Santa Claus?” the child asked. Shoup, according to his children — Terri Van Keuren, Rick Shoup, Pam Farrel — was initially surprised and annoyed, but when the child began to cry he quickly changed his tone. He said, “Ho, ho, ho,” and asked the child whether he had been good — and then he asked to speak to a parent.

NPR reported:

His children remember Shoup as straight-laced and disciplined, and he was annoyed and upset by the call and thought it was a joke — but then, Terri says, the little voice started crying.

“And Dad realized that it wasn’t a joke,” her sister says. “So he talked to him, ho-ho-ho’d and asked if he had been a good boy and, ‘May I talk to your mother?’ And the mother got on and said, ‘You haven’t seen the paper yet? There’s a phone number to call Santa. It’s in the Sears ad.’ Dad looked it up, and there it was, his red phone number. And they had children calling one after another, so he put a couple of airmen on the phones to act like Santa Claus.”

“It got to be a big joke at the command center. You know, ‘The old man’s really flipped his lid this time. We’re answering Santa calls,’ ” Terri says.

The joke took another turn when, on Christmas Eve of 1955, several of the Airmen under Shoup’s command drew a sleigh and eight reindeer on the glass board that they normally used to track the paths of airplanes over U.S. and Canadian airspace.

According to Terri, Shoup saw the drawing and asked, “What is that?”

The airmen said it was just a joke, apologizing and offering to take it down.

“Dad looked at it for a while, and next thing you know, Dad had called the radio station and had said, ‘This is the commander at the Combat Alert Center, and we have an unidentified flying object. Why, it looks like a sleigh.’ Well, the radio stations would call him like every hour and say, ‘Where’s Santa now?'” Terri told NPR, adding, “And later in life he got letters from all over the world, people saying, ‘Thank you, Colonel,’ for having, you know, this sense of humor. And in his 90s, he would carry those letters around with him in a briefcase that had a lock on it like it was top-secret information. You know, he was an important guy, but this is the thing he’s known for.”

“It’s probably the thing he was proudest of, too,” her brother agreed.

In the years since, NORAD has embraced the tradition. Call centers are operational and children can call from all over the world to see where Santa is as he makes his grand journey delivering gifts around the world in a single night.

There is even an official Twitter account — @NoradSanta — that posts updates and videos throughout the day.

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