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Wednesdays with Wade: Walt's Christmas Story

Wednesdays with Wade: Walt's Christmas Story

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During the holiday season, there are many wonderful Disney related Christmas stories. I thought about writing about my favorite Disney Christmas cartoons or live-action movies or the history of the Candlelight Processional or the Osborne Festival of Lights. Then it occured to me that one of my favorite Disney holiday stories has never appeared fully in print. Highly abbreviated versions are in both the Diane Disney Miller biography of her father and in the classic "Walt Disney: An American Original" by Bob Thomas.

For those who were unable to attend this year's Jim Hill Media Christmas Party in Orlando, one of the highlights was Disney Historian Jim Korkis telling the complete story of the Christmas present that gave us the Walt Disney that we all know today. Jim spent many years tracking down the full story and confirming the facts and one of the things that folks like about Jim is how freely he shares information that cost him time and money to obtain.

Jim Korkis is all smiles as he poses with one of the guests at this year's JHM Christmas Party:
Margaret Kerry, the original model for Tinker Bell in Disney's "Peter Pan"
(Photo by Stephan Solovitz)

So as Christmas approaches, I thought I would ask Jim if he would be kind enough to share the full story and, of course, being a Disney Historian and a nice guy, Jim felt it would be his way of giving a gift to all of those who love the true spirit of Disney as much as he does. So here it is:

"Walt's father, Elias, bought a newspaper distributorship in Kansas City, Missouri which meant that he had a certain area where he was responsible for the daily delivery of the newspaper. He hired boys to deliver the papers, paying them up to $2.50 a week. His son, Walt, also delivered those papers starting at age eight but was paid nothing. Elias felt that since he provided clothing and food for his son that was payment enough.

In addition to doing his paper route, Walt earned extra money by delivering prescriptions for a local drugstore and sold extra newspapers on street corners without his father knowing about it. During the noon recess at school, he swept out the candy store across from the school in return for a hot meal. Some days after school, he wasn't even able to steal a few minutes to play football or hockey with his school friends because he had to deliver the afternoon edition of the newspaper.

Walt never forgot his days as a newsboy and some of those memories weren't always pleasant ones. Walt had re-occuring nightmares throughout his life and one of them was that he had missed customers on my paper route. He'd wake up in a kind of a cold sweat and think, 'Gosh, I've got to hurry and get back. My dad will be waiting up at that corner.' His dad really wanted to make that business a success after so many other failures and Walt could sense that anxiety.

Young Walt's route was in a fairly wealthy neighborhood. They were certainly much better off finanically than the Disney family at the time. Walt would start out at 3:30 in the morning and some of the kids in the neighborhood had wonderful toys and often they would leave them out on the porch after playing with them the previous evening.

Walt didn't have any toys. If he got a top or marbles or something, it was a big deal. Everything his parents gave him was something practical like underwear or a winter jacket. His older brother Roy was the one who set aside some extra money from his job so that Walt and his younger sister Ruth would always get some small toy for Christmas.

Anyway, there would be kid's toys out on these big porches. At four o'clock in the morning in the dark, Walt would put his paper bag down and go up and play with these wind-up trains and things. He'd sit there and play all alone with them. One time he came to a porch and there were some toys as well as a box of half eaten candy. So he sat there and ate some of the half-eaten candy and played with the toys.

When Walt told about this time in his life, he always insisted on saying that he left the toys in good shape and always carefully put them back in the same place so the families wouldn't know he'd played with them. Then he'd have to hurry and finish his route before school started.

In the wintertime, he had to get up at 3:00 in the morning for awhile and he'd fall back asleep sitting on the edge of his bed, tying his shoes. His dad would yell 'Walter!' and he'd wake up with his heart racing and finish tying his shoes.

He delivered the papers to the apartments first. He'd go up three floors and deliver to all the doors and come down. Years later, he could remember with clarity those icy cold days when he was just a kid. One time the snow drifts were higher than he was. The weather records for Kansas City confirms that fact. On those icy cold days he'd sometimes have to crawl up those icy, slippery steps. Walt once told his daughters that he would sometimes slip down the steps and just cry because he was all alone and so cold.

In the winter Elias would insist that every paper had to go behind the storm door. On these days when Walt finally got home, people had looked out on their porch but wouldn't open the front door. They'd look on the porch and see no paper and they'd go and phone Elias to complain and Walt's dad would say sternly, 'Walter, did you forget to deliver to so and so?' And his dad wouldn't believe him when he told them he had.

Elias would say 'Well, they say they didn't find it. Now here, here's a paper.' Walt would have to go all the way back up there. Young Walt would struggle back through the cold and go up and ring the bell. When they'd come, he'd open the storm door and the paper would fall at their feet and Walt would be standing holding another one outside. They'd say something like 'Oh, I'm sorry I didn't look there'. No matter how often it happened, they'd still forget to look there.

One Christmas when Walt was about thirteen, he decided he wanted these boots. The kids at school were all wearing boots then and he really wanted a pair of these high leather boots with metal toes and decorated leather strips over the laces. Walt knew that money was tight and that his dad would never agree to such an extravagance so he tried arguing that the boots would be very practical for delivering newspapers through the slush and rain. It would give him more traction and so he could deliver the papers quicker. His dad didn't agree.

Walt remembered hounding his parents for quite awhile hoping the boots would appear as a birthday present or for Christmas. Well, Walt's mom, Flora had put aside a few pennies each week from the housekeeping budget without her husband knowing and Roy had gotten some extra work and contributed that money so on that Christmas, Walt got his pair of boots.

He ran downtown and leaned against a drugstore near the intersection of Thirty-First and Indiana showing off his new boots in hopes that some of his school friends might pass by. It was a warmer winter and some of the ice had already started to melt a bit.

According to Walt about six o'clock, it got dark at that time of year and he decided to go back home. While he was walking across the street, he came up with a new game to kill time. There were hunks of ice frozen in the street because the street was where the ice would start to melt first. So with those new boots on he was kicking these hunks of ice. He'd kick them loose and they skid across the street and Walt was trying to figure what new variations he could create by kicking harder or softer or at an angle.

He came up to kick one hunk of ice and got stuck. He tried to pull his foot out and he couldn't. There was no leverage. There was a nail frozen in that block of ice. A big horseshoe nail. The nail had gone right through the boot into his foot.

There wasn't anyone around. They were all home with their families at that time. Walt couldn't break the hunk of ice loose. He couldn't put any pressure on his foot and he started to panic and just yelled: "Help! Help!"

Walt said that streetcars went by as he waved and yelled, "Help!" They just looked at him and went on by. Even people walking a block away didn't stop. They thought he was a kid playing around. They didn't realize he was stuck to that piece of ice.

Walt claimed he was stuck that way for a good twenty minutes before a horsedrawn delivery wagon came by. Walt yelled, "Help! I'm stuck! I'm stuck!" But the guy didn't believe him. He started to go on. And Walt finally broke into tears. And the driver stopped. He said suspciously, "Are you kidding?" And Walt through his tears said, "No, I'm stuck!"

So the driver came back and looked and saw what had happened. He had to go and get a tool to chop the ice loose. And he carried the small frail boy down the corner where there was a doctor's office. He took Walt up to the doctor's office and the only thing the doctor could do was get a big pair of pliers and put two people holding the young boy's legs down. He said, "Kid, I can't do anything for you. I haven't got anything to give you. Just hang on."

So Walt had to grit his teeth as the doctor got these huge metal pliers to dig in and pull the nail out of his foot. In order to do that, the doctor had to cut the boot off. Then he went in and he had to open up the hole to get the dirt out and then, of course, came the tetanus shot.

Walt was laid up for two weeks. He had to lay on the couch in the living room with his foot elevated. He felt terrible. How could he have been so stupid as to kick blocks of ice? The Disney family would never be able to afford another pair of boots. The fear of being trapped alone on that street came back to haunt his dreams.

Unable to go to school and with no radio or other forms of entertainment, all Walt could do was read or sketch cartoons in a big pad given him by his aunt. At one time, he had seriously considered being a doctor or a lawyer but finally realized that he wasn't an exceptional student. With all the work he was doing, he would sometimes try to catch a catnap in class and miss important information.

He didn't have the grades necessary to go to a good college and his family would never be able to afford to send him to college even if he did. He thought about performing and while he had had some recognition with his various comedy acts, he really did lack the self confidence to pursue a career on the larger vaudeville circuit.

He realized that he loved cartooning. His drawings got chuckles from the people at the local barbershop as well as his fellow students at school. When his mother went to the school to pick up his homework, she would drop off those cartoons and then report back to him on the positive reactions they had gotten.

By the time his foot healed, he had made a firm decision to become a professional cartoonist. Certainly it was an odd choice for a poor boy and there weren't many opportunities for cartoonists. Most newspapers already had their staff cartoonists and weren't looking for new talent.

Very reluctantly, his father allowed him to take his first art lessons on Saturday mornings at the Kansas City Art Institute. When the family moved to Chicago a year or so later, Walt took more classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art and studied with Leroy Gossitt who was a cartoonist for the "Chicago Herald" newspaper.

Walt soon joined up for the WWI ambulance corp in France less than three years after getting those boots. When he returned to the United States, he was ready for his future.

It was that gift of a pair of boots that gave the world the Walt Disney we know today. It was that gift that helped a thirteen year old focus on what his future would be and to marshall all his efforts to make that dream come true.

So this holiday season, look very carefully at that present you give or receive. Just like Walt, it could be the one that transforms your future."

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