No-one would ever call Sewell Avery a softie. Few other men would have the spine to defy the President of the United States.
Born in 1873 to a wealthy family of lumber barons, Avery attended public schools in Michigan and graduated from the Michigan Military Academy and then law school. In 1894, he went to work for what would become known as the United States Gypsum Company . From boyhood, he had been taught that success lied in the individual. Work harder, think smarter, make the tough decisions and don't let personal feelings get in the way. He put these principles into practise and rose rapidly through the corporate hierarchy of "Big Gyp", becoming its president in 1905.
Brittle, surly, so lacking in charm that he was known throughout the business world as "Gloomy Sewell", Avery employed draconian policies. He was perfectly willing to sacrifice a limb to save the body. Under his handling, the U.S. Gypsum Company was one of the few to thrive when the Great Depression struck, thanks to his maintaining a $35-million cash reserve. That, and laying off two thousand employees.
The famed mail-order company, Montgomery Ward, could not make the same claim. It was floundering in the wake of the Depression, and to major stockholder J. P. Morgan, Sewell Avery was the ideal choice to turn things around. Avery agreed to become the company's chief executive officer, and he hit the decks of Montgomery Ward like a furnace blast. His first move was to tighten the company's central control, from a handful of general managers to just one---himself. He closed unprofitable stores, fired the catalogue merchants who hadn't brought in enough profits, and hired new store managers and accountants, and told them to be ruthless. He even personally determined the dècor and accessories of each store.
Employee turnover was high. Avery summarily discharged executives who disagreed with his policies. In the first three years of Avery's rule, twenty-two thousand employees, out of a total of thirty-five thousand, left the company, one way or the other.
As a human being, Avery was far from beloved, but as a businessman, he was an undeniable success. In that same first three years, Montgomery Ward went from a nine-million-dollar loss to a nine-million-dollar profit. He did all right for himself, too. The generous stock options Avery had been granted as an inducement to take the job of CEO left him very rich. He was unapologetic for this; he had earned it, working harder, thinking smarter, and making the tough decisions.
You getting the picture? Sewell Avery was not a cruel man or an evil man. He was a man who was not afraid to be callous if something stood in the way of what he saw as the greater good. And, most pertinent to this story, he believed that what he had earned fairly was his.
This brought him into direct conflict with the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt's New Deal intended to shift the balance of power from the barons of industry to the working class. Low interest rates, high corporate taxes, and---shudder---labour unions. Avery railed against the New Deal, regarding it as an abomination that would destroy the American economy in the long run. After seven thousand Montgomery Ward employees elected to have union representation, Avery threatened to fire all seven thousand. Only after receiving two direct orders from President Roosevelt himself did Avery sign the union contract.
That wasn't the end of it. In 1944, Avery refused to renew the union contract, even when the War Labor Board demanded it. In response, thousands of Montgomery Ward employees went on strike. Still, Avery refused to settle. In response, FDR ordered a government take-over of Montgomery Ward, under an emergency wartime provision. Army troops surrounded the company's Chicago headquarters. Hoping to end the standoff, United States Attorney General Francis Biddle flew to Chicago in an attempt to placate the bristly CEO. "To hell with the government!" Avery, refusing to budge, told Biddle. At the President's order, two soldiers entered, lifted Avery bodily out of his swivel chair, and carried him out of the building.
For most of us, the decision to defy a Presidential order would be the most momentous decision of our lives. Certainly, the one with the most impact on ourselves and others. But for Sewell Avery, a more pivotal decision lied ahead.
Let's back up for a moment, to the year 1938. December.
Bob was a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, and he made a modest-but-liveable salary doing that. But, instead, he and his wife, Evelyn, and their four-year-old daughter Barbara lived in squallor. A shabby two-room apartment with few furnishings and no heat was all they had to their name.
Evelyn was dying. Her body was ravaged with cancer. For two years, she had been bedridden. All of Bob's savings and most of his earnings went to pay for medical treatments. One night in mid-December, while Bob was tucking little Barbara into bed, she asked her father a question. She asked him why her mommy was so sick while other children's mommies weren't. Not knowing how to explain it, instead, Bob told her a bedtime story. One he thought up on the spur of the moment but carrying the lesson, in terms that the little girl could understand, that life could be cruelly unfair. But, Bob's gentle tale concluded, there is as much good in life as bad.
It did the trick, and little Barbara drifted off to sleep. And every evening after, she would ask her daddy to tell the story, again.
You have to wonder if Bob himself actually believed there was as much good in life as bad. There was barely any money for food, let alone to buy his little girl a Christmas present. So he decided to put his writing skill to use. For night after night, after work, after Barbara was put to bed, after Evelyn's needs were tended to, Bob worked to make his story into a poem, like Clement Clark Moore's "A Visit from Saint Nicholas". He wrote it down, polishing every word, every phrase. That would be his Christmas present to Barbara.
Then, a few days before Christmas, as Bob was putting the finishing touches on the poem, Evelyn died.
It was the worst holiday imaginable for Bob. He certainly had no plans on attending the Christmas party at Montgomery Ward. But some of his fellow workers, feeling that he needed something to lift his spirits, dragged Bob to the party. Bob took the poem with him and he was coaxed into reading it to the guests. They listened with rapt attention, laughing where they were supposed to laugh. And then, they suddenly fell quiet, as the subtle lesson in Bob's story drew home. When Bob finished, the crowd erupted in applause.
Bob was approached by some Ward executives. They felt that Bob's poem could be mass produced and used as a marketing gimmick for next Christmas. Bob agreed. Montgomery Ward paid him a nominal fee for the rights to the poem and its central character. The money wasn't much, but it would fend off Bob's creditors for a little while and leave a tiny bit for a Christmas present for Barbara.
For the 1939 holiday season, Montgomery Ward printed over two million pamphlets and handed them out to youngsters whose parents were shopping at their stores all over the country.
The poem took off like wildfire. It was endearing to the parents, as well as their children. Newspapers and magazines printed it. Thousands wrote to Montgomery Ward requesting a copy. For the next several years, the company passed out millions of free copies every Christmas season.
Something this phenomenal wasn't going to escape the notice of the boss, Sewell Avery, by then, having returned to the helm of the company. Scores of manufacturers contacted Montgomery Ward, requesting the licensing rights. If Ward said yes, there would be toys, puzzles, colouring books, mugs, slippers, and just about anything else under the sun featuring the poem's little hero. The company was sitting on a gold mine.
As for Bob, he had remarried in 1941, but he was still struggling to pay off his late wife's medical bills while keeping a roof over the heads of his family, especially since three more children had come along. The prosperity of his poem hadn't trickled down to him, since he had signed away the copyright years before.
In the winter of 1946, Sewell Avery prepared to make a fortune off that poem. A thorough man, he ordered one of the pamphlets brought to him and he read it. He asked his executives who wrote the story. The men who had been at that 1938 Christmas party explained how one of the company's copywriters wrote it. They told him how Bob's wife had died of cancer and he had written it as a present for his little girl. Does he still work for us, Avery wanted to know. Yes, they said, he couldn't afford to quit.
Avery called the corporation lawyers. Yes, they assured him, Montgomery Ward owned the rights to the character, free and clear. All profits would go to the company.
It was a perfect situation for Montgomery Ward, and for Avery, since his stock options ensured that he would benefit as the company did. For a hard-nosed businessman like Sewell Avery, the decision was obvious.
It's a safe bet that those were the thoughts filling Avery's mind at that moment. But there's no way to know what was filling his heart. Perhaps it had been touched by the gentle poigancy of the story. Or the tragic circumstances behind it.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Christmas spirit had found its way into his flinty, bottom-line soul.
The only thing we know for sure is that crusty, old, what's-mine-is-mine Sewell Avery ordered his lawyers to return the copyright to Bob, free of charge, so that he would receive all royalties.
The story that Bob had dreamt up to comfort his little girl was commercially published for the first time in 1947, and that was just the start. Since then, Bob's creation has been the subject of movies, animated cartoons, a hit song, television specials, and even a comic-book series published by DC Comics. The magic that this struggling copywriter somehow found in his heart during the most terrible time of his life has entertained children and adults everywhere. It has become a fixture of our Christmas celebration and part of our cultural mythology.
Thanks to the compassion and generosity of Sewell Avery, Bob---Robert L. May---and his family were financially secure for the rest of their lives.
And there isn't a child on Earth who doesn't delight to the tale of . . . .
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
From Cheryl and myself, to all of you, our fondest wishes for a Merry Christmas, and many more of them!
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