22 December 2008

Ohio: A helping hand in 1933

Journalism professor Ted Gup's heartwarming story about a family secret appeared in today's New York Times.


In the weeks just before Christmas of 1933 — 75 years ago — a mysterious offer appeared in The Repository, the daily newspaper here. It was addressed to all who were suffering in that other winter of discontent known as the Great Depression. The bleakest of holiday seasons was upon them, and the offer promised modest relief to those willing to write in and speak of their struggles. In return, the donor, a “Mr. B. Virdot,” pledged to provide a check to the neediest to tide them over the holidays.

Not surprisingly, hundreds of letters for Mr. B. Virdot poured into general delivery in Canton — even though there was no person of that name in the city of 105,000. A week later, checks, most for as little as $5, started to arrive at homes around Canton. They were signed by “B. Virdot.”

The gift made The Repository’s front page on Dec. 18, 1933. The headline read: “Man Who Felt Depression’s Sting to Help 75 Unfortunate Families: Anonymous Giver, Known Only as ‘B. Virdot,’ Posts $750 to Spread Christmas Cheer.” The story said the faceless donor was “a Canton man who was toppled from a large fortune to practically nothing” but who had returned to prosperity and now wanted to give a Christmas present to “75 deserving fellow townsmen.” The gifts were to go to men and women who might otherwise “hesitate to knock at charity’s door for aid.”

Since then, B. Virdot's identity had remained a mystery. Who would have guessed he was a Romanian Jewish immigrant who had arrived in Pittsburgh as a teen in 1902?

That is, until last summer, when Gup's mother gave him an old black suitcase from her attic. Inside were letters from December 1933, 150 canceled checks signed by B. Virdot and a bankbook.

Gup's mother Virginia had always known - but had never told her son - that the donor was her father, Samuel J. Stone, whose nom de plume was formed of the names of daughters Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy. She didn't know what was in the suitcase.

The piece covers Gup's discovery of those letters from all over Canton, Ohio, from across the spectrum, from painters to salesmen to bricklayers to former executives.

One man wrote: “For one like me who for a lifetime has earned a fine living, charity by force of distressed circumstances is an abomination and a headache. However, your offer carries with it a spirit so far removed from those who offer help for their own glorification, you remove so much of the sting and pain of forced charity that I venture to tell you my story.”

The writer, once a prominent businessman, was now 65 and destitute, his life insurance policy cashed in and gone, his furniture “mortgaged,” his clothes threadbare, his hope of paying the electric and gas bills pinned to the intervention of his children.


Women and children also wrote letters. Gup quotes from those and from thank-you letters from written by people who received the checks. He includes many of the letter images in the story.

In 1902, Samuel J. Stone was 15 when he and his family fled Romania, where they had been persecuted and stripped of the right to work because they were Jews. Living in Pittsburgh's immigrant ghetto, his father hid Stone's shoes so he couldn't go to school; he and his siblings were forced to roll cigars.
My grandfather later worked on a barge and in a coal mine, swabbed out dirty soda bottles until the acid ate at his fingers and was even duped into being a strike breaker, an episode that left him bloodied by nightsticks. He had been robbed at night and swindled in daylight. Midlife, he had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy, almost losing his clothing store and his home.

By the time the Depression hit, he had worked his way out of poverty, owning a small chain of clothing stores and living in comfort. But his good fortune carried with it a weight when so many around him had so little.

Evidence of other generosity was also in the old suitcase, such as information on hundreds of wool overcoats he sent to British soldiers the year before the US entered WWII. He put unsigned handwritten notes in the pockets urging them to keep up their spirits.

Stone died at 93, in 1981, in a car he was driving himself to the office. He never went public with his acts of charity.

Read the complete story at the link above.

5 comments:

  1. A very heart warming story. Thanks for sharing it.

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  2. Schelly,

    What an interesting, heartwarming, and timely post. I've never heard of this story and it's so appropriate with the state of the world's economy today. Thanks for a great post.

    Tim

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  3. An appropriate story of giving for the holidays of all faiths.

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  4. Anonymous7:50 PM

    How ironic, and how typical, that it took a Jew to bring Christmas to so many people. Why am I not surprised?

    THen you read about slimeballs like Madoff and you want to puke.

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  5. Anonymous4:44 AM

    It is likely that i would have missed this story if you had not brought it to my attantion. Thank you for doing that. Reading about Mr. Virdot is the kind of warm fuzzy not often received these days.

    Marlene

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