Author Archive

Ted on CBS Sunday Morning

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

Secret Great Depression Benefactor Revealed

Ted Gup’s 80 year-old mother handed him a suitcase labeled “Memoirs” filled with letters dated the same week in December 1933, all addressed to someone named Mr. B. Virdot. Rita Braver tells has the story of a mysterious benefactor who in the Great Depression, sent gifts to those in need.

Read more: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7096732n#ixzz16gjJSp8d

Modern-day B. Virdots to help Stark folks in need

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

By Gary Brown  | Canton Repository |  November 25, 2010

The giving spirit of B. Virdot lives again.

Three Stark County men have pledged to give $100 gifts — a total of $15,000 — to 150 families and individuals who have been hit especially hard by the economic times. They are patterning their generosity after a Canton businessman — known for decades only as B. Virdot — who in 1933 made gifts of $5 to 150 area families whose finances were strapped by the Great Depression.

And, as was the case with the man who inspired them, the trio of benefactors wishes to remain anonymous. The givers will be known to the recipients of their gifts by the revived name of B. Virdot.

“The Stone family is delighted that in another time of need there is another B. Virdot to reach out and help,” said Ted Gup, the former Canton resident who, in the recently published book “A Secret Gift,” revealed how he discovered about two years ago that B. Virdot was his grandfather, Sam Stone.

SERVED AS INSPIRATION

Articles in The Repository about that book, and about Gup’s Palace Theatre event focusing on the families Stone helped with his gifts, served as inspiration to the three men, one wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.

The articles told how a man calling himself B. Virdot placed an ad in The Canton Repository on Dec. 18, 1933, offering to give “modest” gifts of money to men or families in need of it, “so they will be able to spend a merry and joyful Christmas.”

A front-page story about the gifts was published in the newspaper on the same 1933 date as the advertisement.

The three men were sitting at a restaurant discussing the gifts and relating the story to today’s recession. They “thought it would be a good idea if B. Virdot might live again,” according to the e-mail sent to The Repository.

“What we propose is a joint effort … to repeat the offer for cash gifts to those most in need.”

The plan is as simple as Stone’s. The men will provide the money. The Repository will solicit letters from individuals and families explaining a need. Requests for help will be screened by a rabbi, a priest and a minister, who also will remain anonymous. They will choose the 150 recipients of the $100 gifts.

The donors believe members of the clergy would be better equipped to choose deserving recipients because of their experience in helping others.

The gifts will be distributed by United Way of Greater Stark County.

“We feel that all this should be done,” the representative of the donors said, “in the name of B. Virdot.”

The Repository agreed to respect the donors’ wish to remain anonymous.

GIVING CONTINUES

Gup said he was notified by the United Way that after articles about his Palace Theatre program appeared in The New York Times and The Repository, the United Way of Greater Stark County was contacted by potential donors from as far away as New York and Seattle.

“We have not seen the end of this,” Gup said.

The modern-day B. Virdot trio who are prepared to help the community through tough times hopes the giving continues. One of the men said he believes their gifts will inspire others to find their own ways of becoming B. Virdot in their hearts.

Gup feels his grandfather is “looking on, smiling” at the gesture made by the men.

“I’m sure he would applaud this gift,” Gup said of his grandfather. “It’s totally in keeping with the spirit of B. Virdot.”

Stark County Residents in need of money:

Write a letter explaining why you need the money and mail it to:

B. Virdot
C/O The Repository
500 Market Ave. S
Canton, OH  44702
No phone calls or e-mails, please

A YULETIDE GIFT OF KINDNESS

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Seventy-five years later, Ted Gup learns the astonishing family secret about his grandfather’s generosity during the Great Depression

By Ted Gup  | Smithsonian magazine, December 2010

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 railroad tracks, 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 in the 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 a check 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 his secret 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. The same 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 something about 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’s generosity 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 Great Depression 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 research I discovered that his birth certificate was bogus. Instead of being born in Pittsburgh, as he had long claimed, he was a refugee from Romania who came to this land in his early teens and simply erased his past. Born an orthodox Jew and raised to keep kosher and speak Yiddish, he had chosen to make his gift on a gentile holiday, perhaps as a way of acknowledging his debt to a land that had accepted him.

Among those who wrote to B. Virdot was George Monnot, once one of Canton’s most prosperous businessmen. Monnot had co-owned a Ford dealership that sometimes featured an 11-person band in tuxedos. His good fortune had also brought him a lakeside summer home, a yacht and membership in the country club. But by 1931, it was all gone. He and his family were living in an alley apartment among displaced workers, many of them unsure of their next meal. In his letter, he wrote:

For 26 years was in the Automobile business prosperous at one time and have done more than my share in giving at Christmas and at all times. Have a family of six and struggle is the word for me now for a living.

Xmas will not mean much to our family this year as my business, bank, real estate, Insurance policies are all swept away.

Our resources are nil at present perhaps my situation is no different than hundreds of others. However a man who knows what it is to be up and down can fully appreciate the spirit of one who has gone through the same ordeal.

You are to be congratulated for your benevolence and kind offer to those who have experienced this trouble and such as the writer is going through.

No doubt you will have a Happy Christmas as there is more real happiness in giving and making someone else happy than receiving. May I extend to you a very Happy Christmas.

Nine days later, Monnot wrote again:

My Dear Mr. B. Virdot,

Permit me to offer my sincere thanks for your kind remembrance for a Happy Christmas.

Indeed this came in very handy and was much appreciated by myself & family.

It was put to good use paying for 2 pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift.

At present I am not of employment and it is very hard going. However I hope to make some connection soon.

I again thank you on behalf of the family and an earnest wish is that you have a most Happy New Year.

But George Monnot would never again attain economic or social prominence. He spent his final days as a clerk in a factory and his evenings in the basement among his tools, hoping to invent something that might lift him up once more. His tool chest is now in the hands of one of his eight grandsons, Jeffrey Haas, a retired vice president of Procter & Gamble.

In some ways, Monnot was one of the lucky ones. He at least had a place to call home. Many of those who reached out to B. Virdot had been reduced to living as nomads. Worse, many parents gave up their children rather than see them starve. A woman named Ida Bailey wrote:

This Xmas is not going to be a Merry one for us, but we are trying to make the best we can of it. We want to do all we can to make the Children happy but can’t do much. About 7 years ago Mr. Bailey lost his health and it has been nick & tuck ever since but we thank God he is able to work again. We all work whenever we can make a nickel honest. Three years ago this Depression hit us and we lost all our furniture and had to separate with our Children. We have 4 of them [out of 12] with us again. There are three girls working for their Cloaths & Board. I do wish I could have my children all with me once again. I work by the day any place I can get work…you know the wages they get don’t go very far when there is 6 to buy eats for…I think if there were some more people in Canton like you and open up their Hearts and share up with us poor people that does their hard work for them for almost nothing (a dollar a day) when the time comes for them to leave this world I would think they would feel better satisfied for they can’t take any of it with them….

One of the children the Baileys placed with another family was their son Denzell, who was 14 in 1933. His daughter, Deloris Keogh, told me he had moved more than two dozen times before he reached the sixth grade. He attended nearly every school in Canton at least once. He never had a chance to make friends, he said, or get settled or focus on his studies. He dropped out of the sixth grade and later worked as a bricklayer and janitor. But he vowed that his children would not endure the same rootlessness—that they would know but one home. So with his own hands he began to build a house of stone, gathering blocks from quarries, abandoned barns and a burned-down schoolhouse. Everyone knew of his determination, and friends and neighbors contributed stones to the house. A minister brought back a rock from the Holy Land. Others brought back stones from their vacations. Denzell Bailey found a place for each one. It took him 30 years to complete his house, a monument to his resolve. He died in it on November 23, 1997, at age 78, surrounded by his four children. It was the only home they had known. Denzell’s house of stone remains in the Bailey family to this day.

When Edith May wrote to B. Virdot, she was living on a hardscrabble farm at the edge of town.

Maybe I shouldn’t write to you not living right in Canton, but for some time I have been wanting to know somebody who could give me some help.

We have known better days. Four years ago we were getting 135 dollars a month for milk. Now Saturday we got 12…. Imagine 5 of us for a month. If I only had five dollars, I would think I am in heaven. I would buy a pair of shoes for my oldest boy in school. His toes are all out & no way to give him a pair.

He was just 6 in October. Then I have a little girl will be 4 two days before Xmas & a boy of 18 months.

I could give them all something for Xmas & I would be very happy. Up to now I haven’t a thing for them. I made a dolly for each to look like Santa & that’s as much as I could go. Won’t you please help me to be happy?

Have you got any ladies in your family could give me some old clothes.

We all took a cold by not having anything warm to wear—it is the children’s first cold & my first in ten years. So you can imagine our circumstances.

My husband is a good farmer but we have always rented & that keeps us poor. When we were making good money he bought his machinery & paid for them, so we never wasted anything. He is only 32 & never had anyone to give him a help in starting….

& oh my I know what it is to be hungry & cold. We suffered so last winter & this one is worst.

Please do help me! My husband don’t know I am writing & I haven’t even a stamp, but I am going to beg the mailman to post this for me.

No wonder Edith May complained of the cold: she was Jamaican. She had fallen in love with an African-American man with whom she had been a pen pal. They had gotten married and moved to a farm outside Canton. Edith May’s “little girl” was named Felice. Today she well remembers her fourth birthday, two days before Christmas. When the chores were done, she and her family went into town. She remembers the Christmas lights. Her mother took her to a five-and-dime store and told her she could have either a doll or a wooden pony you pulled with a string. She chose the pony. It was the only present she remembers from those hard times, and only during our conversation last year did it occur to her that B. Virdot’s check allowed her mother to buy such a gift. Today, Felice May Dunn lives in Carroll County, Ohio, and raises Welsh ponies—a love of hers since childhood.

Helen Palm was one of the youngest to appeal to B. Virdot. She wrote in pencil on a slip of paper.

When we went over at the neighbors to borrow the [news]paper I read your article. I am a girl of fourteen. I am writing this because I need clothing. And sometimes we run out of food.

My father does not want to ask for charity. But us children would like to have some clothing for Christmas. When he had a job us children used to have nice things.

I also have brothers and sisters.

If you should send me Ten Dollars I would buy clothing and buy the Christmas dinner and supper.

I thank you.

Finding Helen Palm’s descendants was difficult. Her daughter, Janet Rogers, now 72, answered my questions about her mother—when she had been born, when she got married. Just as I was about to ask when her mother had died, Janet asked, “Would you like to speak with my mother?”

It took me a moment to collect myself. I had discovered the last living person to write to B. Virdot.

Even at age 91, Helen Palm, a housewife and great-grandmother, remembers the check she received in 1933. She used the money to buy clothes for her brothers and sisters, just as she had said she would do in her letter, and to take her parents to a nickel show and to buy food. But first, she bought herself a pair of shoes to replace those she had worn through and patched with a cardboard insert cut from a Shredded Wheat box. “I did wonder for a long time who this Mr. B. Virdot was,” she told me. Now she is the only one among all those who sought help that Christmas 77 years ago to live long enough to learn his true identity.

“Well,” she said to me, “God love him.”

For more on the article in Smithsonian Magazine, go to smithsonianmag.com

NY Times: In Canton, Kindness of a Stranger That Still Resonates

Monday, November 8th, 2010

CHRISTOPHER MAAG: Taken together, the letters from families struggling through the Great Depression create a larger story of a city and a nation struggling to accept a new notion: that without help they might not survive, no matter how hard they worked.

*************

November 7, 2010  | New York Times

Kindness of a Stranger That Still Resonates

By CHRISTOPHER MAAG

CANTON, Ohio — The event was a reunion for people who were never supposed to meet, commemorating an act of charity that succeeded because it happened in secret.

Helen Palm sat in her wheelchair on the stage of the Palace Theater and read her plea for help, the one she wrote in the depths of the Great Depression to an anonymous stranger who called himself B. Virdot.

“I am writing this because I need clothing,” Ms. Palm, 90, read aloud on Friday evening. “And sometimes we run out of food.”

Ms. Palm was one of hundreds who responded to an advertisement that appeared Dec. 17, 1933, in The Canton Repository newspaper. A donor using the pseudonym B. Virdot offered modest cash gifts to families in need. His only request: Letters from the struggling people describing their financial troubles and how they hoped to spend the money. The donor promised to keep letter writers’ identities secret “until the very end.”

That end came last week at the city’s famed 84-year-old Palace Theater, at a reunion for families of B. Virdot’s recipients. About 400 people attended. For the older people, it was a chance to remember the hard times. For relatives of the letter writers, it was a time to hear how the small gifts, in the bleakest winter of the Depression, meant more than money. They buoyed the spirits of an entire city that was beginning to lose hope.

Of the 150 people in Canton who received checks, most for as little as $5, from B. Virdot, Ms. Palm is the only one still alive, and the only one to learn the anonymous donor’s true identity. “I thought about B. Virdot a lot” in the years after 1933, Ms. Palm said. “I was really surprised when I learned his real name.”

His secret lasted 75 years. Then, in 2008, a Canton native named Ted Gup received a suitcase stuffed with his late grandfather’s papers, including letters addressed to one B. Virdot.

Mr. Gup, an investigative journalist formerly with The Washington Post, discovered that B. Virdot was his grandfather, Samuel J. Stone, who escaped poverty and persecution as a Jew in Romania to build a successful chain of clothing stores in the United States. He created the name B. Virdot by combining the names of his daughters, Barbara, Dorothy and Mr. Gup’s mother, Virginia.

Mr. Gup used the letters as the basis for a book, “A Secret Gift,” just published by Penguin Press. Relying on newspaper archives and government documents over the last two years, he found and interviewed more than 500 descendants of the letter writers.

Taken together, the letters from families struggling through the Great Depression create a larger story of a city and a nation struggling to accept a new notion: that without help they might not survive, no matter how hard they worked.

“In many cases these were individuals with their backs against the wall, watching their children go hungry every night,” Mr. Gup said in a phone interview last week.

At a time when accepting charity was seen as a moral failure, Mr. Stone’s promise of anonymity shielded the letter writers from shame. An unemployed woman caring for her sick daughter and disabled sister wrote to Mr. Stone, “If I thought this would be printed in the papers I would rather die of hunger first.”

Kenneth Richards was dumbfounded when Mr. Gup tracked him down to his home outside Canton and told him that his mother, Mattie Richards, had received a check from B. Virdot.

“I really didn’t believe him because my mother just wouldn’t ever ask anybody for help,” Mr. Richards, 72, said. “Here was a woman I never knew.”

The stigma against handouts continues in Canton, once a thriving manufacturing city that spent the last three decades watching factories close. James Macey lost his job as a waiter last month when the restaurant he was working at, Cheeseburger in Paradise, closed. He applied for more than 15 jobs before requesting unemployment assistance on Friday.

“I waited two weeks because I didn’t want to apply for unemployment,” Mr. Macey, 25, said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Canton’s tradition of charity continues, too. Mr. Macey’s pastor at Cathedral of Life Church offered him $250 to scrub the church’s floors. Insisting that was too much money for four hours of work, Mr. Macey requested $100. The pastor, M. Dana Gammill, asked him to accept $150.

Many people need such help in Canton. More than half the city’s children live below the federal poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, up from 38 percent in 2008. More than 3,000 people called the United Way for help in October, a 33 percent increase over last year, the agency said.

Frustration over 10.4 percent unemployment in surrounding Stark County has caused more political instability than Canton has known in generations. John Boccieri, a conservative Democrat, won the seat in Congress from the local district in 2008, only to lose to Jim Renacci, a Republican, last week. “People are scared,” said David B. Cohen, a political scientist at the University of Akron. “When the economy is bad, the party in power gets punished.”

In 1933, the fear was visceral. J. L. White, father of seven children, wrote in his thank-you note to B. Virdot that he was considering suicide just before he received the gift.

For other families, Mr. Stone’s gift provided the only holiday cheer that bleak winter. Olive Hillman used the $5 check to buy her 8-year-old daughter a doll with a porcelain face and leather arms.

“I was thrilled to get it,” said the daughter, Geraldine Hillman Fry, now 85. “It really was the only doll that I ever had in my life, so it meant a lot to me.”

At Friday’s reunion, people talked about how Mr. Stone’s example of generosity resonates today.

“I think there’s a message here that people in Canton know how to get through the hard times by pulling together,” Mr. Gup said.

Days before Christmas 1933, with Mr. Stone’s gift in hand, Edith May took her 4-year-old daughter Felice to a five-and-dime store and bought her a wooden horse.

Seventy-seven years later, Felice May Dunn owns two farms and 17 Welsh ponies.

“In my life it made a big difference,” Ms. Dunn, 80, recalled. “It was my favorite toy.”

Article Available Online at www.nytimes.com

The Boston Globe Reviews A SECRET GIFT

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Chuck Leddy: “A Secret Gift is a wonderful reminder that economic hardship can bring suffering but can also foster compassion and community.”

*******************************

BOOK REVIEW

Professor uncovers secrets of a caring grandfather

By Chuck Leddy  |  November 8, 2010

Ted Gup is a journalism professor at Emerson College and former investigative reporter at the Washington Post. Yet the most dramatic story of Gup’s life was a deep mystery hidden for generations within his own family.

One day Gup’s mother gave him an old suitcase filled with his grandfather’s letters and some canceled checks, triggering the investigation that would become this absorbing and inspiring book. Inside the suitcase were hundreds of letters from residents of Canton, Ohio, all sent in December 1933 to someone named B. Virdot. These letters “spoke of hunger and cold, of endless searches for work, of dead ends and growing frustrations,’’ writes Gup. Each letter asked Virdot to send financial help to lessen the ongoing ravages of the Great Depression.

Gup discovers that Virdot had placed a notice in the Canton newspaper offering $10 (a considerable sum in 1933) to 75 Canton residents experiencing financial hardship. He invited residents to send letters describing their need. Virdot apparently received so many compelling requests that he cut the gifts to $5 and helped twice as many families.

Gup also learns that “B. Virdot was my grandfather. His name was Sam Stone.’’ Gup’s grandfather owned a clothing store in Canton. As Gup probes deeper into the mystery, he discovers that his grandfather had other secrets.

Gup’s book interweaves two narrative threads. He sets off to discover the personal history of his grandfather and to explore the stories of the recipients of the gifts and their descendants — a quest that sends him off to visit surviving family members, libraries, historical societies, and cemeteries, and results in hundreds of interviews.

Gup initially finds researching his own family history the most frustrating part: “I could find nothing of my own grandfather’s past.’’ What Gup’s research ultimately reveals is that his beloved grandfather had long been lying about his past.

Gup learns that the mild-mannered, civic-minded clothier Sam Stone had been born Sam Finkelstein in a shtetl in Romania, not in Pittsburgh, as he’d always claimed. Why, asks Gup, would his grandfather seek to conceal his origins, risking federal prosecution for lying on his passport? Gup blames horrifying anti-Semitism in Romania, governmental persecution that forced the Finkelstein family to flee to the United States. Fearing anti-immigration backlash in his new country, Finkelstein changed his name and buried his past.

Poverty and the fear of discovery would define Stone’s character, Gup writes, compelling him to work tirelessly to secure his family’s place in the world. But these anxieties also made Stone compassionate about the suffering of his community.

Gup focuses on letters from business owners gone broke, factory workers laid off and unable to feed their families, wives who wrote on behalf of husbands too proud to seek help, and children who simply wanted food. Gup encounters only one surviving letter writer, 90-year-old Helen Palm, who, as a hungry 14-year-old in 1933, received money from B. Virdot to buy her family food and herself a pair of shoes.

“A Secret Gift’’ is a wonderful reminder that economic hardship can bring suffering but can also foster compassion and community. Sam Stone, a Jewish exile, fought hard to conceal his past but also felt deeply the pain of others. As Gup writes: “To the suffering of his fellow townspeople, the act had brought relief and hope. But to Sam, it signaled a personal triumph in which he could finally believe that he had escaped the persecution, rejection, and poverty that had defined his past.’’

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy {at} comcast(.)net.

Article Available Online at www.boston.com

A SECRET GIFT Reviewed in the Los Angeles Times

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Carolyn Kellogg: “A gesture of generosity can deliver, along with small relief, good fortune that rings with hope.”

***********

The Los Angeles times | November 7, 2010

A journalist discovers the anonymous generosity of his grandfather during the Great Depression.

On Dec. 18, 1933, an ad appeared in the Canton, Ohio, paper offering financial aid for 50 to 75 families to help them have “a merry and joyous Christmas.” The benefactor asked simply that the applicants write of their “true circumstances” — and, when the letters arrived, felt compelled to help twice as many. Before Santa arrived, $5 checks from B. Virdot — as the paper noted, a pseudonym — reached 150 people. Virdot’s identity remained a secret for 75 years, until his grandson, Ted Gup, opened a suitcase to discover a bankbook and the cache of letters.

They could hardly have landed in better hands. Gup, a former Washington Post reporter who now chairs the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston, dived into public records to trace what happened to the recipients of his grandfather’s generosity-and to their children and grandchildren. When he could, he interviewed the families connected to those long-ago, modest gifts. In telling their stories, the book becomes a portrait of endurance and recovery, as well as of a community in the throes of the Great Depression.

Before the stock market crash of 1929, Canton was a busy industrial city in , home to Hoover and Republic Steel. But it was kneecapped by the Depression, with unemployment running as high as 50%. Local banks failed, taking all the deposits with them. Assistance programs there frequently ran out of food. Malnourished children in homes their parents couldn’t afford to heat got sick; some died.

The devastation hit all levels: the people who received $5 from B. Virdot included a grocer who’d gone broke extending credit to his customers, and a man who lost his family’s mansion after putting it up as collateral for the farm machinery business he had inherited.

The letters, many of which are reproduced in full, are snapshots telling desperate stories they wouldlater downplay or deliberately forget. “We do not own a home here, nor furniture, tho we once did,” wrote Edith Saunders. “Recently we were unable to pay any rent for five weeks and were ordered to move.” Ora Beggs, who’d been sick after losing a son the year before, explains, “We do have a large Dr. bill at Dr. Maxwell, a hospital bill, grocery at Mr. Brown’s on Navarre rd. The last two I have been paying a dollar on whenever possible. Also owe $16 at Jacobs funeral home yet.”

The Beggs family moved to the country, where they had no indoor plumbing but could at least raise their own food. Son Don, now in his 80s, remembers getting a paper route — and selling chickens and rabbits to the people who could afford them. The necessary grimness of these true stories is leavened by the long view — the septuagenarians who remember the local amusement park, the boy who grows up to fight bravely in World War II, the grandchildren safe from want.

In his letter, Howard Sommers detailed the efforts he and his wife made to earn money, including picking wild dandelions and selling them door to door. “Please destroy this letter,” he writes, “so no one will know but you & I.” That pact of secrecy — between the authors and the anonymous B. Virdot — was key to their frankness.

In chapters that alternate with the letters and their legacy, Gup weaves the story of B. Virdot. Initially, Gup wanted to understand why his grandfather undertook this singular act of generosity, but he found himself exploring why he invented B. Virdot at all That exploration led to a stack of secret upon secret, which Gup fans out like a deck of cards.

B. Virdot, the man Gup knew as Sam Stone, was born Sam Finkelstein in Romania, although he maintained otherwise. Driven by anti-Semitism, the family emigrated to the U.S., landing in Pittsburgh. Apparently to deny the legacy of his abusive father, Sam shed his last name and reinvented himself as man who, eventually, was able to make his way in Canton as a successful businessman. Hampered by the cratering economy and the troubled family he foreswore, Stone’s path to success was never assured. “As Sam Stone learned more than once,” Gup writes, “the bright line that separated the favored class from those below them could dissolve almost overnight, exposing the fragile divide between the haves and have-nots.”

The last two years have proved that to be the case all over again. But after the Great Depression, the U.S. learned how to take care of its people: bBank deposits are insured, and our network of social services, if imperfect, is far more robust. Even the unfortunateare living in comparatively fortunate times.

The letters, Gup writes, “reminded me of the difference between discomfort and misery, between the complaints of consumers forced to rein in their spending and the keening of parents whose children went hungry night after night.” They also show that a gesture of generosity can deliver, along with small relief, good fortune that rings with hope.

carolyn.kellogg {at} latimes(.)com

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times

On Dec. 18, 1933, an ad appeared in the Canton, Ohio, paper offering financial aid for 50 to 75 families to help them have “a merry and joyous Christmas.” The benefactor asked simply that the applicants write of their “true circumstances” — and, when the letters arrived, felt compelled to help twice as many. Before Santa arrived, $5 checks from B. Virdot — as the paper noted, a pseudonym — reached 150 people. Virdot’s identity remained a secret for 75 years, until his grandson, Ted Gup, opened a suitcase to discover a bankbook and the cache of letters.

They could hardly have landed in better hands. Gup, a former Washington Post reporter who now chairs the journalism department at Emerson College in Boston, dived into public records to trace what happened to the recipients of his grandfather’s generosity-and to their children and grandchildren. When he could, he interviewed the families connected to those long-ago, modest gifts. In telling their stories, the book becomes a portrait of endurance and recovery, as well as of a community in the throes of the Great Depression.

Before the stock market crash of 1929, Canton was a busy industrial city in , home to Hoover and Republic Steel. But it was kneecapped by the Depression, with unemployment running as high as 50%. Local banks failed, taking all the deposits with them. Assistance programs there frequently ran out of food. Malnourished children in homes their parents couldn’t afford to heat got sick; some died.

The devastation hit all levels: the people who received $5 from B. Virdot included a grocer who’d gone broke extending credit to his customers, and a man who lost his family’s mansion after putting it up as collateral for the farm machinery business he had inherited.

The letters, many of which are reproduced in full, are snapshots telling desperate stories they wouldlater downplay or deliberately forget. “We do not own a home here, nor furniture, tho we once did,” wrote Edith Saunders. “Recently we were unable to pay any rent for five weeks and were ordered to move.” Ora Beggs, who’d been sick after losing a son the year before, explains, “We do have a large Dr. bill at Dr. Maxwell, a hospital bill, grocery at Mr. Brown’s on Navarre rd. The last two I have been paying a dollar on whenever possible. Also owe $16 at Jacobs funeral home yet.”

The Beggs family moved to the country, where they had no indoor plumbing but could at least raise their own food. Son Don, now in his 80s, remembers getting a paper route — and selling chickens and rabbits to the people who could afford them. The necessary grimness of these true stories is leavened by the long view — the septuagenarians who remember the local amusement park, the boy who grows up to fight bravely in World War II, the grandchildren safe from want.

In his letter, Howard Sommers detailed the efforts he and his wife made to earn money, including picking wild dandelions and selling them door to door. “Please destroy this letter,” he writes, “so no one will know but you & I.” That pact of secrecy — between the authors and the anonymous B. Virdot — was key to their frankness.

In chapters that alternate with the letters and their legacy, Gup weaves the story of B. Virdot. Initially, Gup wanted to understand why his grandfather undertook this singular act of generosity, but he found himself exploring why he invented B. Virdot at all That exploration led to a stack of secret upon secret, which Gup fans out like a deck of cards.

B. Virdot, the man Gup knew as Sam Stone, was born Sam Finkelstein in Romania, although he maintained otherwise. Driven by anti-Semitism, the family emigrated to the U.S., landing in Pittsburgh. Apparently to deny the legacy of his abusive father, Sam shed his last name and reinvented himself as man who, eventually, was able to make his way in Canton as a successful businessman. Hampered by the cratering economy and the troubled family he foreswore, Stone’s path to success was never assured. “As Sam Stone learned more than once,” Gup writes, “the bright line that separated the favored class from those below them could dissolve almost overnight, exposing the fragile divide between the haves and have-nots.”

The last two years have proved that to be the case all over again. But after the Great Depression, the U.S. learned how to take care of its people: bBank deposits are insured, and our network of social services, if imperfect, is far more robust. Even the unfortunateare living in comparatively fortunate times.

The letters, Gup writes, “reminded me of the difference between discomfort and misery, between the complaints of consumers forced to rein in their spending and the keening of parents whose children went hungry night after night.” They also show that a gesture of generosity can deliver, along with small relief, good fortune that rings with hope.

carolyn.kellogg {at} latimes(.)com

A SECRET GIFT in the Wall Street Journal

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Tom Perrotta: “What makes the men and women in his book seem truly of another age is that they keep to themselves feelings and stories we today would share. They make do and then move on. No doubt Sam Stone, who kept his gift and its recipients secret for so long, thought that his grand gesture was in fact very small.”

**********

wall street journal  | november 6, 2010

by Tom Perrotta

American history books make no mention of Rachel DeHoff. Neither does Wikipedia or Google. In all the catalogs of this country’s achievements, heroes and calamities, DeHoff, as inspirational a citizen as one might imagine, had no place—until now. A survivor of the Great Depression, a loving mother and among the first women to obtain a real-estate license in Ohio, DeHoff is one of the many admirable everyday Americans unearthed by “A Secret Gift,” Ted Gup’s tirelessly reported and lively book on those hard times, and the especially hard year of 1933.

Mr. Gup’s characters lived in or near Canton, Ohio (his hometown), and shared what until recently had been a secret: At a time when they were hard up, each wrote a letter in response to a December 1933 newspaper advertisement from a man named B. Virdot, who promised to send Christmas cheer—in the form of a $5 check—to those he deemed the neediest. “B. Virdot” was Mr. Gup’s grandfather, Samuel J. Stone, who owned a chain of clothing stores.

secret

Ted Gup Sam Stone

The recipients of B. Virdot’s checks were not given a king’s ransom (the author estimates $5 to be worth almost $100 today), but at a time when a gallon of gas cost 18 cents and a dozen eggs cost 30, these much-needed alms were a welcome help at the holiday season. The citizens of Canton mostly asked for money to buy the essentials: shoes for their children, clothes, food. They wrote on behalf of neighbors and relatives. B. Virdot wrote 150 checks in all.

Mr. Gup, a former investigative reporter for the Washington Post, is an expert gatherer. Yet he nearly fumbled the story of B. Virdot. When his mother, Virginia, turned 80, she gave Mr. Gup an old suitcase stuffed with family memorabilia. He ignored it for days. When he later opened it, he came across the B. Virdot letters but found them unreadable. Only on a second encounter with the letters did Mr. Gup stumble upon the advertisement in the Canton Repository and realize B. Virdot’s true identity.

Given a good scoop, Mr. Gup characteristically gets to work. He chases down relatives of the recipients of his grandfather’s charity and records their family histories, frequently revealing to them a bitter chapter they themselves either never suspected or never fully understood. He sifts through census reports, obituaries and deeds—documents that eventually cram six drawers of a file cabinet. In terse, polished prose he rebuilds Canton’s once popular haunts, its factories, its homes and its history of vice, crime and graft.

In Canton, as in the rest of the nation, the Depression did not discriminate: It laid low poor, middle-class and well-to-do families alike. One man B. Virdot sent a check to was George Monnot, once the owner of a Ford dealership so successful that it employed its own 11-musician band, outfitted in tuxedos. The Depression took his business, his savings, his insurance policy and his home. He and his wife had four children.

When Rachel DeHoff wrote to B. Virdot on Dec. 19, 1933, she had recently been widowed, age 35. She had just four years of education, no savings, a mortgage and two sons, one in high school and one age 9. “It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope—that this terrible depression will soon be over,” she wrote. “I have never received charity of any kind.”

It’s a common sentiment in these letters: Most correspondents wanted a job or a loan, not a handout. What they desired most was dignity. Charles Stewart, an unemployed clerk and bookkeeper, couldn’t work in a factory because tuberculosis had wrecked one of his lungs. He asked B. Virdot to reveal his own real name so that Stewart might one day repay any gift with interest.

A book about kindness to strangers, this is also very much a book about family secrets. Like the recipients of B. Virdot’s checks, who frequently hid the darkest period of their lives from their children or grandchildren, Mr. Gup’s grandfather had a past he never shared. He had always claimed he was born Samuel J. Stone in Pittsburgh. In fact, he was Sam Finkelstein from Dorohoi, Romania. More shockingly, Mr. Gup discovered that his grandfather had arrived in the U.S. illegally and never normalized his immigration status.

Instead, he told a lot of lies to make sure no one found out. When the government required foreign-born citizens to register (on pain of deportation) during World War II, Stone took his chances and did not come forward. Mr. Gup distresses over this. “The record was one of deliberate and calculated deception,” he writes, harshly. “And he got away with it, if you can call living decades in uncertainty and anxiety getting away with it.”

Mr. Gup hints that his grandfather’s fear of discovery played a role in his decision to keep his good deeds anonymous. He also suggests they were a way of making amends and giving back to the adopted country that he feared at any moment might rescind its own generosity. That could be true—or it could have been plain and simple kindness from a man who well knew his own good fortune. Mr. Gup’s instincts as a reporter lead him to always ask “why,” but he occasionally demands more answers than his now-dead subjects can provide.

What makes the men and women in his book seem truly of another age is that they keep to themselves feelings and stories we today would share. They make do and then move on. No doubt Sam Stone, who kept his gift and its recipients secret for so long, thought that his grand gesture was in fact very small.

—Mr. Perrotta is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Article available online at www.wsj.com

Interview on the Regina Brett Show – WKSU/NPR

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Listen to the interview with Regina at http://www.wksu.org/regina/

The Lessons Learned in Hardship

Monday, September 20th, 2010

You don’t need me to tell you that these are difficult times for many Americans. One in ten workers is jobless. One in five children lives below the poverty line. And yet, for most of us, these times are not to be confused with The Hard Times, the decade of The Depression. As I worked on my book, A Secret Gift, I interviewed at least five hundred people about their memories of those years, what they learned from such hardships, and how they were changed by them.

America was different then. Americans were different. Almost no one looked to government for help. Instead, they looked to family, to neighbors, to the church or synagogue. But mostly, they looked inward. They were proud, often too proud to admit the depths of their needs. They often hid those needs and their despair from those closest to them, not wanting to add to the burdens of loved ones. Early on I asked those who had been children in the Depression if they ever went to bed hungry. Now in their eighties and nineties, they often laughed at the question. Hunger for many was a constant. They often filled their bellies with dandelion salads or beans. Mothers were credited with miracles, conjuring up suppers from nothing. Many children did not know the word “breakfast” until years later when there was food enough for a morning meal. And even my presumption that they slept in a “bed” triggered amusement. Many grew accustomed to sleeping on hard floors, warmed only by the proximity of their parents and siblings. Evictions and repossessions had left them with nothing. Many lived as nomads.

Laying their hands on a pair of shoes decent enough to keep the snow out, was a relentless concern. Without shoes, children could not go to school, mothers and fathers could not walk the streets in search of day labor, and those who hunted for their next meal were limited by how long they could expose their feet to the cold. Adults could wear a single pair of shoes year after year, but children’s growing feet could not. Shoes were among the most coveted items in the Great Depression, just behind bread and coal.

The safety nets we have today – Social Security, Medicaid, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Unemployment – all these were unknown to Americans in the early years of the Great Depression. They come to us as a legacy of those Hard Times. From those times we learned that even the most earnest and resourceful of Americans sometimes could not make it without outside help, that being unable to find work was not evidence of personal failure or lack of character. In that period the stigma attached to accepting a hand up, if not a hand out, began to dissolve. From those times we learned that Individuals had limits and unless we acted collectively and collaboratively the entire country was at risk. Today we speak of “Entitlements.” In 1933 the word had little place in the national vocabulary and even less in the national budget. Today, the debate continues over how much or how little government should intervene in times of crisis. But only the most diehard of revanchists would dismantle the basic apparatus that was created to alleviate massive public suffering and avert another financial calamity.

There is much we who grew up in more prosperous times inherited from those who endured so much. There are the bits and pieces of folk wisdom – the “waste not, want not” mindset, the saving of string and rubber bands, the notion that exiting a room meant turning off the light. It was 1933 that Scotch Tape came to market. Anything that could be repaired was. It was 1933 that the Lone Ranger came to the airwaves, rescuing communities that could not rescue themselves. And it was 1933 that an out-of-work heating engineer began to market a new game to be called Monopoly. Its Darwinian vision of capitalism mirrored the experience of many. The word “enough” took on special meaning in those years. It was uttered with a certain defiance. It was less a measure of what one had than who one was. It spoke to the sufficiency of will. Those who could say they had enough were still to be counted among the undefeated.

These are trying times for many. For some, particularly those long out of work, they are barely distinguishable from The Hard Times. In the depths of this Great Recession, some sixteen million Americans were out of work. That’s one million more than in the Great Depression. Granted, the population was smaller then and the percent of jobless was higher – 25% vs. 10 % — but to those unable to find work and to provide for loved ones, such numbers bring little comfort.