Col. Harry Shoup was sitting in his office in early December 1955 when the red phone on his desk rang.
Only one other person — a four-star general at the Pentagon — was supposed to have the number to that hotline at the Continental Air Defense Command in Colorado Springs, the predecessor to today’s North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. If it rang, it might mean Shoup was about to learn World War III had broken out.
But when he answered, a small boy’s voice asked, “Is this Santa Claus?”
Those four words sparked what would eventually become a wildly popular, 63-year tradition: NORAD Tracks Santa.
In a 2014 interview with StoryCorps that originally aired on NPR, Shoup’s three children said the disciplined, straight-laced Air Force officer was not amused at first.
“He thought it was a joke,” Shoup’s son, Richard, said. He was “annoyed” and “upset,” his daughters, Terri Van Keuren and Pamela Farrell, said.
It was only when the child started crying that Shoup realized it wasn’t a prank call. So he switched gears, Farrell said. He broke out his best ho-ho-ho, and asked if the kid had been a good boy that year. He then asked to talk to the boy’s mother, who alerted him to a pretty big mistake.