In the 1950s, two phones sat on the desk of Air Force Col. Harry Shoup at Continental Air Defense Command operations center in Colorado: a black one for local calls, and a red one with a number that was top secret.
If the red one rang, his daughter says, "it wasn't good news."
That changed one December day in 1955, when Shoup answered the red phone and heard a child's voice, with a question.
"Is this Santa Claus?"
So began the program now known as NORAD Tracks Santa, which follows Saint Nick on his Christmas Eve journey around the world and broadcasts the details to children everywhere. The program celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and now reaches millions of people across the globe.
On that day in 1955, Shoup hesitated — he thought it was a joke — before he began to play along. The child had called the secret number because a local newspaper had misprinted the number in a Sears, Roebuck & Co. advertisement for a Santa hotline.
"Hey, Kiddies!" the ad said. "Call me direct."
Shoup died in 2009. But his children, including daughter Terri Van Keuren, 66, know the story.
His phone was soon "ringing off the hook," she says, and he assigned airmen to help answer.
The Continental Air Defense Command was the predecessor of NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.
This year, more than 1,200 American and Canadian military personnel, Department of Defense civilians and members of the community will volunteer to answer calls and emails, NORAD spokesman Preston Schlachter says.
The tracker has kept pace with technology. Kids now can use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and mobile apps to follow Santa's path.
"There's multiple ways that you can track Santa on Christmas Eve, in addition to just giving us a call," Schlachter said.
According to NORAD, the Santa Tracker website gets nearly 9 million visitors a year. It offers games, a holiday countdown and activities in eight languages.
Kids send more than 12,000 emails and make more than 70,000 calls to NORAD's Santa hotline each year.
Shoup recalled that first phone call in an interview now posted on YouTube. He braced for a message from a top military official.
"I was all shook up," he said.
The girl who called, he said, "had a big long list of what she wanted."
She told him she would leave food for him and his reindeer.
After that first call, Van Keuren says, a radio station was alerted and news wires picked up the story.
"Radar Spots Santa," The Baltimore Sun reported on Dec. 24, 1955.
"CONAD said first reports of its radar and ground observer outposts indicate Santa was traveling about 45 knots at an altitude of 35,000 feet and should arrive in the United States early tomorrow night for his annual visit," the Associated Press reported. "United States and Canadian defense units will steer him into the prevailing jet stream, which should double his speed, and around stormy weather west of the Hudson Bay area."
Van Keuren said the program got a publicity boost in 1980, when her sister alerted local television crews in Colorado for the 25th anniversary.
Shoup — a strict disciplinarian to his children — became known as "the Santa Colonel," his daughter said.
"He was a colonel through and through," Van Keuren said. "But he had this warm, fuzzy Christmas side."
Many kids would ask Shoup how Santa traveled so quickly around the world.
"Dad would say, 'It's the magic of Christmas,'" Van Keuren recalled. "'Don't stop believing.'"
Kids can track Santa this year by calling 1-877-HI-NORAD (1-877-446-6723) or by sending an email to email@example.com.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
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