MONMOUTH, Ill. — Dr. Vird Odell Cudd had as many vocations as Forrest Gump, working as a circus performer, professor, veterinarian, would-be sheriff, philanthropist and elephant caretaker, but his favorite role by far was Santa Claus.
When the colorful longtime Monmouth resident died in 1964 at the age of 88, “Doc” Cudd was beloved by generations of local children for donning an increasingly threadbare red suit and jingling sleigh bells year after year, a tradition he began in 1897 at the age of 22.
Perhaps it was Cudd’s birth, a week before Christmas in a South Carolina snowstorm, that inspired his passion. It was “the worst snow and windstorm ever to hit that state,” he once quipped, “but the doctor still had to run 20 miles to catch me.”
Cudd spent his early years in Tennessee, and as a young man joined the Ringling Bros. Circus, where for two years he drove teams and performed as a clown. His expertise with horses led him to Oklahoma, where he became a civilian employee of the Army, breaking range horses for the cavalry.
Next stop for Cudd was Arkansas, where he met his future wife, Louisa Gogue, and the couple was married — appropriately — on Christmas Eve in 1902. For the next decade, Cudd worked as a rural mail carrier, but his love for animals never waned. In 1912, he became interested in artificial insemination and started breeding fancy stock cattle. He enrolled in the Graham Scientific Breeding School in Kansas City, Missouri, where he graduated in 1914. He then traveled the country for two years on behalf of the school, serving as a lecturer on breeding, primarily to farmers.
In 1914, Cudd enrolled in a Kansas City veterinary college, then finished his training at a college in St. Joseph, Missouri in 1919. With a veterinary doctor’s diploma in hand, he came immediately to Monmouth, having been encouraged by friends to locate there, and got off to a flying start, literally, when he became the first veterinarian in the state to travel from farm to farm in an airplane — an open two-seater, in which he was the passenger.
But things turned rocky when suddenly Illinois wouldn’t grant him a license to practice, even though he was already licensed in Missouri and Oklahoma. The state refused to recognize the colleges he attended and it would take him five years to get licensed, during which time he was convicted twice in Warren County for practicing without a license and fined. But farmers loved him and even petitioned the state on his behalf.
Cudd ran for Warren County sheriff twice — in 1930 and 1934 — but failed to win the Republican nomination. With a campaign photo resembling Tom Mix, the county might have had a cowboy sheriff riding a horse to the scene of a crime.
While never emulating the movie star, Cudd did have a brush with show business, when in 1934 he adopted Nizie, the dwarf elephant used by Monmouth magician Will Nicol in his stage show. The ailing pachyderm had developed a nutritional disease that affected its joints, so Cudd developed a leather harness which allowed him to stand with the aid of a block and tackle. After Nizie’s death later that year, Cudd buried the 900-pound elephant in a field on his farm on North 11th Street.
Cudd also gained fame for following in the footsteps of millionaire John D. Rockefeller by dispensing shiny dimes to people he met — particularly children — a tradition he began in 1904. Each dime was numbered, and Cudd kept meticulous records of how many recipients had joined his “Lucky Dime Club.” Former Monmouth resident Charles Courtney still treasures his Cudd Dime №14,884, which he received in the early 1950s after running into the veterinarian at the dry cleaning establishment run by Cudd’s son Glenn, located just south of the Cudd farm. Doc Cudd was particularly proud that during World War II, 558 club members carried lucky dimes, noting “there wasn’t a country in which a battle was fought where I didn’t have a dime.”
The Lucky Dime Club went hand-in-hand with Cudd’s Santa persona, as his greatest love well into old age was getting out into the community and dispensing gifts. In 1953 at age 78 he was still making his Christmas rounds in the Santa suit, visiting Monmouth Hospital and downtown businesses, and even boarding a bus to pass out all-day suckers, chocolate kisses and peanut brittle.
“Santa Cudd” even visited the new Formfit plant on the north outskirts of town, distributing candy to the factory workers. When one woman remarked that his beard was getting a bit faded, he replied, “If you’d been playing Santa Claus for 56 years, you’d be lucky if you had a beard!”
By 1962, Cudd had become bedfast, and spent his final days in the Mercer County Home in Aledo. According to his great-granddaughter, Gina Lovdahl, he was able to purchase a wheelchair with dimes returned by members of his Lucky Dimes Club.
When Doc Cudd died on March 9,1964, the Review Atlas published an obituary with the provocative headline “Santa Claus Is Dead.” But for the thousands of Monmouth children he befriended over 45 years in the Maple City, no other headline would have sufficed.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about Western Illinois history for more than 40 years.