"You'll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid!"

Film poster for "A Christmas Story"
Film poster for "A Christmas Story"
Jean Parker Shepherd Jr. -- or "Shep," as he was often called -- is probably best known today for the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story," now a seasonal classic, which he co-wrote and narrated as the adult "Ralphie." Shep briefly appeared in a cameo near the end of the movie, when he is standing with a woman and young boy at the beginning of a long line to see Santa Claus, and he directs young Ralphie to the end of the line. Shep's third wife, Leigh Brown, silently appeared in the same scene with Shep. (She is also credited as a co-writer of the movie's screenplay.) 
The immensely popular film is largely based on two of Shep's prior books: "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash" and "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters." The books were primarily compilations of previous stories first published in Playboy magazine in the 1960s. The tales often involved fictionalized treatments of real people Shep knew while growing up (e.g., the Bumpus family, Flick, Schwartz, Miss Shields), as well as members of his family (e.g., "the Old Man" and Randy).

Shep was, and remains, well known to many in New Jersey, especially those who listened to his nightly radio programs on WOR radio from about 1955 to 1977. He also frequently performed in the state, including in Cranford at the high school and Union County College. Shep sometimes lived in New Jersey -- New Milford and Washington -- after he moved to the New York area from the Midwest, where he was born and raised. Although Shep's "home" in the movie was located in Cleveland, Ohio -- where it is now a museum -- he actually spent his school years in Hammond, Indiana. 

Shep's younger brother was indeed named Randy. After Shep moved away from Indiana, Randy remained there, where he ran a limousine service. Randy also briefly played semi-pro baseball for the Rockford Rox. The team was put out of business in 1949 by the more popular and successful Rockford Peaches, made famous by the 1992 Hollywood hit  "A League of Their Own."
Shep's "Old Man" left the family after the brothers graduated from high school. He took up with a much younger woman from the area and moved to West Palm Beach, Florida, where he remained. Shep's mother remarried, after living with Randy in Indiana for a time.

During World War II, Shep served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He never left the States. Many of his buddies did, however. "Flick" (aka Jack N. Flickinger) -- whose tongue, on a dare, was stuck to a cold flagpole in front of Warren G. Harding School -- served in North Africa in an anti-aircraft unit. When he returned home after the war, he ran the family business in Hammond, Flick's Tavern.  

"Schwartz" (aka Paul L. Schwartz) -- who issued the infamous "triple dog dare" to Flick -- was commissioned a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Schwartz died in March 1944 when his B-17G Flying Fortress crashed and burned in an accident over the Adriatic Sea at the start of a bombing run to a Nazi Messerschmitt factory. His body was never recovered.

Delbert Bumpus -- the eldest son of the "neighborhood hillbillies" owning the hounds that stole Shep's Christmas turkey at the end of the movie -- was actually an honor student and star baseball player on local Hammond teams. In real life, Delbert's father, Roscoe, who sold life insurance, raised several beagle puppies confined in a kennel for occasional sale to hunters. Delbert enlisted as a tanker in the U.S. Army and stormed Easy Red Sector on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944 -- D-Day. He was medically discharged at the end of the war with a Bronze Star Medal for valor after fighting his way to the Siegfried Line as a tank commander. He suffered from PTSD for the remainder of his life.

Shep passed away in Florida in 1999 at age 78. Leigh, a native of Newark, New Jersey, and Shep's constant companion for decades, had died the previous year.

During his life, Shep had many creative projects -- including books, live theater, radio, magazine articles, television and concerts -- but it was "A Christmas Story" that brought him the widespread fame and riches that otherwise had eluded him.


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