Kirk Irwin for The New York Times
Ted Gup, Mr. Stone’s grandson, spoke Friday with Helen Palm at a program in Canton, Ohio, for those who received gifts from B. Virdot and their families.
By CHRISTOPHER MAAG
Published: November 7, 2010
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.
Kirk Irwin for The New York Times
Canton is having tough times once again.
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.”