A Yuletide Gift of Kindness
Seventy-five years later, Ted Gup learns the astonishing family secret about his grandfather's generosity during the Great Depression
The year was 1933 and christmas was just a week away. Deep in the trough of the Great Depression, the people of Canton, Ohio, were down on their luck and hungry. Nearly half the town was out of work. Along the railroadtracks, children in patched coats scavenged for coal spilled from passing trains. The prison and orphanage swelled with the casualties of hard times.
It was then that a mysterious "B. Virdot" took out a tiny ad in the Canton Repository, offering to help the needy before Christmas. All he asked was that they write to him and tell him of their hardships. B. Virdot, he said, was not his real name,and no one would ever know his true identity. He pledged that those who wrote to him would also remain anonymous.
Letters poured into the post office by the hundreds. From every corner of the beleaguered town they came—from the baker, the bellhop, the steeplejack, the millworker, the blacksmith, the janitor, the pipe fitter, the salesman, the fallen executive. All of them told their stories inthe hope of receiving a hand. And in the days thereafter, $5 checks went out to 150 families across the town. Today, $5 doesn't sound like much, but back then it was more like $100. For many, it was more money than they had seen in months. So stunning was the offer that it was featured in a front-page story in the newspaper, and word of it spread a hundred miles.
For many of those who received acheck signed by B. Virdot, the Christmas of 1933 would be among their most memorable. And despite endless speculation about his identity, B. Virdot remained unknown, as did the names of those he helped. Years passed. The forges and shops of Canton came back to life, and memories of the Great Depression gradually faded. B. Virdot went to his grave along with many of those he had helped. But hissecret was intact. And so it seemed destined to remain.
Then in 2008—75 years later—and 600 miles away, in an attic in Kennebunk, Maine, my 80-year-old mother handed me a battered old suitcase. "Some old papers," she said. At first I didn't know what to make of them—so many handwritten letters, many difficult to read, and all dated December 1933 and addressed to a stranger named B. Virdot. Thesame name appeared on a stack of 150 canceled checks. It was only after I found the yellowed newspaper article that carried the story of the gift that I came to realize what my mother had given me.
B. Virdot was my grandfather.
His real name was Sam Stone. "B. Virdot" was a combination of his daughters' names—Barbara, Virginia (my mother) and Dorothy. My grandmother had mentioned somethingabout his largesse to my mother when she was a young adult, but it had remained a family secret. Now, 30 years after her father's death, she was comfortable letting the secret out.
Collectively, the letters offer a wrenching vision of the Great Depression and of the struggle within the souls of individuals, many too proud to speak of their anguish even to their loved ones. Some sought B. Virdot'sgenerosity not for themselves, but for their neighbors, friends or relatives. Stirred by their words, I set out to find what became of them, tracking down their descendants, wondering if the $5 gifts had made any difference. From each family, I received permission to use the letter. All of this I did against the backdrop of our own deepening recession, one more devastating than any since the GreatDepression itself. I also set out to find why my grandfather made the gifts. I knew his early years had been marked by poverty—as a child he had rolled cigars, worked in a coal mine and washed soda bottles until the acidic cleansing agent ate at his fingertips. (Years later, as the owner of Stone's Clothes, a men's clothier, he finally achieved a measure of success.) But in the course of my...