On a cold, drizzly December Sunday in 1933, hundreds of families gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Canton, Ohio, for the annual reading of A Christmas Carol. It was a small spot of cheer in a very bleak year in the midst of the Great Depression. For four years, Canton's citizens had been beaten down by the Depression--children went to school on empty stomachs with holes in their shoes, if they had shoes; banks were padlocked and hard-earned savings were lost; homelessness swelled, people scavenged for coal along the B&O railroad tracks, and many ended up in asylums, poorhouses and orphanages. While listening to Dickens gave some momentary relief, outside in the cold was a city with 50% unemployment. "Like towns and cities and across the land, Canton was sinking fast, mired in a systemic failure so pervasive it bred more resignation that revolution. No institution existed--neither government, church, nor charity, to stem the misery.... That Christmas of 1933 was a time when consumption meant TB, not a shopping spree, and the stigma of the dole was as hard to face as hunger itself."
In that time of abject misery, the next day's paper, the Canton Repository, printed a brief ad from a mysterious man with a strange name: B. Virdot. The ad offered to give assistance to men or families for whom "the bread of tomorrow is the problem of today." B. Virdot acknowledged that it would be immensely difficult to ask for help; folks would "hesitate to knock at charity's door for aid." It was not just a matter of pride or shame--Canton's streets teemed with grifters and con artists, and the ad might seem suspicious. But the newspaper assured its readers that the offer was genuine, and B. Virdot promised that the recipients' names would remain confidential. He initially planned to give out $10 to 75 people, but with the deluge of letters, changed that to $5 for 150 recipients, which would have been close to today's $100--a veritable lifeline for some. Even for people who did not receive a check, many spirits were raised just by knowing that someone cared, that someone invited them to share their grief and suffering; indeed, many who wrote to him in secret thanked him just for the opportunity to unburden themselves.
Mr. B. Virdot kept his word--the people's names were never made public, and he also remained anonymous, since many who wrote to him would know his real name. These were proud men and women who would never have felt comfortable writing such letters to anyone whose face they might recognize.
B. Virdot was not unmasked for decades, but the secret began to unravel one day in June 2008, when Ted Gup became the recipient of a suitcase belonging to his grandfather Sam Stone. Among other things, it contained a large, tattered yellow envelope labeled: "PERTANING XMAS GIFT DISTRIBUTION." Inside the envelope were letters dated December 18, 1933; a passbook from a bank showing a $750 deposit; and 150 cancelled checks signed "B. Virdot." Gup had no idea what to make of it, but was curious--he was, after all, a former investigative reporter--so he began with his memories of his grandfather Sam, a short, exuberant, impish man: "For me, he was a grandfather so mischievous and impulsive that even as a child I felt I should keep a close eye in him." He was well-to-do, but had lived with both great poverty and great wealth. He had also, as Gup came to find out, known some very hard times before the Hard Times of the 1930s, and his life prior to 1918 was a mystery--any inquiry into Sam's early life was deflected with humor or a story.
So one mystery solved: B. Virdot was Sam Stone. But who was Sam Stone, and who were the people who wrote the letters, and what effect did the $5 gift have? Gup repeatedly read the letters, immersing himself in the history of his hometown of Canton and in the writers' anguish. They were mostly handwritten, from six pages long to just a few lines on a single page. They sought work, clothing and food, not necessarily a monetary gift, but the money would buy a Christmas dinner for August Liermann's eight children; milk and fresh eggs to soothe Hazel Baum's husband's ulcers; help for Frances Lindsay's neighbor, Willis Evans, who, though down on his luck, still took in others. Some letters were written on scraps of reused paper, some on letterhead stationery from defunct businesses. Black and white, immigrant and American-born, executive and ironworker--all of them in the same place now, struggling to live, and wanting so much to give a loved one or a neighbor a bit of Christmas.
For Ted Gup, who knew the Depression as a chapter in a history book, the past now became real. As he read and studied, he saw how the legacy of suffering shaped the character of his family, his community, and the nation--a legacy of sacrifice and gratitude. "In the minute details of their lives can be seen the stirrings of vast societal and political changes that would reshape the nation, and the emergence of a generation so respected that three-quarters of a century later its descendants would hail it as 'the Greatest.' "
Gup went through thousands of pages of documents in order to track down descendants of the letter writers. He wanted to know what happened to these people and to their children and grandchildren. He eventually pulled out about 50 that seemed representative of the entire group, and began to interview around 500 descendants. At the same time, he began tracking down Sam's story, to discover his true identity and motivation.
By the fall of 1933, Sam Stone, after many reversals, once again had a store, Stone's Clothes, and was prosperous. Sam had gone to great lengths to reinvent himself after his family immigrated from Romania, and while he had shed his past and improved himself, he was often beset by worry and feared the growing xenophobia of the era. Six thousand people arrested in 1920 and held without trial; restrictive immigration quotas; government crackdowns and public apprehension of radicals--all raised fears in Sam. Even in the best of times, he knew that fortune could be capricious, and he saw something of himself and his past in the people who wrote to him.
George Monnot had been a prominent businessman, with a Ford car dealership that occupied an entire city block and that had its own 11-person band. But by 1931 he had lost his business and his home, and now was struggling to feed his family of six. He wrote to B. Virdot, risking his pride, but couldn't bring himself to ask for anything; instead, he congratulated Mr. Virdot for his benevolence and kind offer. Monnot never fully recovered, and when he died in 1949, his obituary listed him as a stock clerk at a motor plant. Another businessman, Frank Dick, went from prince to pauper with his company, and mentioned in his letter that before his reversals his greatest pleasure was in assisting everyone around him, and that he hoped to be able to do it again. The same day that he wrote, a former employee of his was also asking for help. James Brownlee was 73 years old, and said, "I want to say how I would rather have work to pay for my own way than any other thing." But there was no work to be found, and neither man recovered. Bill Gray was a prominent figure in Canton, a regular at Bender's Restaurant, who had a prosperous painting business. After he lost it all, he picked up odd jobs, and dug potatoes for himself, his family and his neighbors and solicited canned foods for others in need. He did eventually get back on his feet, but more modestly, and to his grandson, he was a hardworking man who never talked about the Hard Times.
Nothing in these people's lives was as abhorrent as self-pity, and even those who had achieved some measure of success came of age in a time of immense hardship. Asking for help was just not done, and yet, people found themselves in that position. Charles Stewart wrote in an elegant hand:
"Practically my entire working career has been a white-collared job, until April, 1930. Since that date I have been unable to obtain any kind of steady employment. I did manage to obtain a day now and then during the summer, which kept the wolf from the door, or at least wouldn't allow him entrance. I applied to the Service Director for work, to be paid in groceries, but he stated he couldn't assist me in any way."
Women wrote to B. Virdot, too. They often had the most difficult time, since it was assumed that if a woman had a job, it was to supplement a man's income; they were the first to lose jobs, and they had fewer options. Alverna Wright's husband, Noble, was in a reformatory, listed as a "depression inmate," and she and her little girl lost their furniture and then their furnished rooms. She asked for $5 for her girl for Christmas, for her husband and mother and mother-in-law, who had also lost her home. Maude Carlin wrote asking for help, and her daughter Valerie, now 85, still remembers her Christmas gift of 1933, when she was nine: an orange and a little powder-blue change purse. The orange was the first fresh fruit she could remember. Rachel DeHoff became a widow in 1932, with two sons, a crushing mortgage and little savings. She wrote, "You mentioned men--but I am not a man but I am taking the responsibility of a man. As Father + Mother... I have never received charity of any kind or have never complained to anyone before but after I read your letter I made up my mind to write to you, not asking, just telling you my circumstances...." Rachel DeHoff became a successful real estate agent, and took others into her home, just as her sister had done for her earlier.
"Sam Stone was a silent and minor hero against the vast backdrop of the Great Depression," but there were many like him--people who took in others; merchants and doctors who extended payment terms; companies like Superior Dairy, which kept its employees and extended credit to its customers and later reaped the benefits of compassion in unexpected ways. The results of such small kindnesses can't always be calculated, but sometimes the thread runs straight from past kindness to the present. Mrs. Edith May, one of half a dozen African-Americans to write to B. Virdot, asked for help for her family--her husband, a "good farmer," and their daughter, Felice May. Felice remembers her father carrying her on his shoulders through the snow to the school bus stop. She remembers the skunks her father would trap for the pelts. And she remembers the Christmas of 1933, when her parents took her to town, to a five-and-dime. She had never seen anything like it, and chose one gift--a toy horse. Today, at 80, she raises and sells Welsh ponies on her farm. That check from B. Virdot reached far.
Over and over again, stories of compassion shine through these hard times. B. Virdot's gift of $5 did not restore fortunes or broken families, did not repair fragmented childhoods, but it may have helped some to not give in to despair. The New Deal had not yet had an effect, and people were desperate to know that their troubles mattered to someone. "To capitulate to self-pity or public plaints not only exposed weakness in one's own character but threatened to unravel the composure of others." One man said, "I can't even express myself in writing this letter. It hurts. Something within me rebels." For men like Ted Gup's grandfather, charity was the final act of defeat--not a stop-gap measure, but "the repudiation of a lifetime rooted in self-reliance. The shame of poverty was tolerable... but [not] the loss of face...." To give charity was a good thing, to receive it was degrading.
In uncovering the story of Sam Stone's life--a life that was in many ways tragic, in other ways wonderfully remarkable--Ted Gup discovered an amazing man and an amazing story. He began to see the power of his grandfather's charity: "It was the smallness of B. Virdot's gift--a mere five dollars--that was its magic, not an act of governmental grandiosity but a gesture of human compassion." Not only that, but Sam Stone had created a "rare comfort zone" where people could safely unburden themselves. His gesture of human compassion is a call to all of us this winter season, and beyond, to help each other in any way we can.
When James Brownwell, the 73-year-old painter, wrote a note of thanks to his benefactor, he quoted from Edgar A. Guest:
He has not lived who gathers gold,
Nor has he lived whose life is told
In selfish Battles he has won,
Or deed of skill he may have done,
But he has lived who now and then
Has helped along his fellowman.
What better words to live by, in good times as well as bad? --Marilyn Dahl