A ghost of Christmas past evokes book and reprise
Ted Gup '72 learns about his grandfather, and the people his grandfather helped
It was the winter of 1933, the depths of the Great Depression. The unemployment rate in tiny Canton, Ohio was 50 percent.
On December 18 of that year, a brief item appeared on the front page of the local newspaper, The Canton Repository. The headline read: “In consideration of the white collar man.” The anonymous essay beneath acknowledged how difficult it must be to have a reversal of fortunes and need to ask for help to feed the family. The writer encouraged those down on their luck to send a letter outlining their circumstances, and offered to send checks to help 50 to 75 families, “so they will be able to spend a merry and joyful Christmas.”
It was signed “B. Virdot.”
Flash forward 75 years. An old faux leather suitcase full of papers had survived all those decades and was sitting in an attic in Kennebunk, Maine, when Brandeis alum and award-winning journalist Ted Gup ’72 came to visit his mother. Before he left, she took him up to the attic. There she pulled down the suitcase and handed it to him.
Inside were over 150 hand-written letters and dozens upon dozens of canceled checks. Also enclosed was a yellowed newspaper page from The Canton Repository.
Gup’s mother let him in on a family secret: When she was five years old, the anonymous philanthropist who signed the checks “B. Virdot” was her father, Ted Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone. “B. Virdot”, she explained, was a combination of her name and the names of her sisters: Barbara, Virginia and Dot.
“Here this suitcase survives 75 years and finds its way into the hands of a reporter in the midst of the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression,” says Gup, who now heads the Emerson College journalism department. “If you believe things were meant to be, this was meant to be.”
“The built-in government social safety nets that we have today did not exist back then,” Gup says. “Back then if you lost your job, you could very well see your children starve to death or they’d be put into orphanages. Jails were full of Depression inmates, people desperate enough to cross the line and steal to feed their families.”
Gup set out to find out who the letter writers were and what became of them and of their descendants. He searched public records, newspaper clippings, cemetery records and dozens of other sources. He ended up conducting over 500 interviews with children and grandchildren of the original writers. The result is his new book, “A Secret Gift.”
One letter received by his grandfather was from a young mother. Edith May wrote to B. Virdot saying how poor her family was and how cold it was and how she hoped her letter would get to him without a postage stamp because she did not have money to pay for a stamp.
Gup managed to track down Edith May’s daughter, Felice, who remembered the hard times. “She told me that her father trapped skunks for other people to keep things going,” says Gup. “He would come home with his eyes swollen shut because he’d been sprayed. She remembered he smelled awful.”
Felice’s birthday was two days before Christmas. “They never went into town, but on her fourth birthday,” says Gup, “she was allowed to go into a store and pick a toy.” It was a gift made possible by B. Virdot’s generosity. “She chose a toy horse with a pull string,” says Gup. “Today she raises miniature horses.” Gup says that before his interview with Edith May’s daughter, Felice had no idea where the money for her toy horse came from.
As he traced those who wrote to his grandfather seeking help, Gup uncovered another family secret.
He had always been told that his grandfather had been born and raised in Pittsburgh. His research found that his grandfather was actually a refugee from the Romanian pogroms. Sam Stone’s birth surname was Finkelstein.
“He was born an Orthodox Jew, spoke Yiddish and kept kosher,” says Gup. He came to the United States at age 15, worked his way up starting with manual labor in a coal mine, but went bankrupt in 1929. By 1933 had recovered and owned Stone’s Clothes in downtown Canton, Ohio, a blue-collar Midwestern mill town, where he settled and started a family.
“1933 was the year Hitler came to power and here he was in a safe environment after facing lots of persecution,” says Gup. “So I’m sure that to some degree this [philanthropy] was an expression of gratitude to the country and to the town for being accepted.”
Sam Stone quickly assimilated. “He went to temple,” says Gup, “but he was not very observant. He had a Christmas tree. He had a wife and three kids and always liked to open his presents first. It was a classic Midwestern tradition.”
Stone's philanthropy did not stop in 1933. Seven years later, as World War II spread across Europe, Gup’s grandfather used his retail contacts to send warm overcoats to British civilians in London.
“In the pocket of each one he sent an eloquent letter about what the meaning of democracy meant to him,” says Gup. “He never got past the second grade, so it’s clear that my grandmother signed them.”
The letters said: “To a Briton – This gift comes to you from one who is fortunate to live in a country where faith in democracy – in decency and dignity of men can still be reaffirmed. Please accept it not in a spirit of appreciation, but as a humble thanksgiving for your heroic efforts, so the enslavement, the political and social regimentation would not be extended throughout the continent of Europe and possibly the world. Here in the United States we realize that our heritage of Democracy and freedom is at stake, and greatly depends upon the outcome of the battle across the sea, impelled by such realization, Americans who believe in the things which make life worth living for free men, have banded together in a great cause of “AID TO BRITAIN”. …I hope that you continue your spirit, high and strong, and with firm belief in “THAT WHICH IS RIGHT WILL SURVIVE, THAT WHICH IS WRONG WILL PERISH”, I will close with unshaken faith in the British, who have risen as by a single impulse – to Defend. – Yours for Victory, I am.”
Gup remembers his grandfather as a man full of life. “He liked to dance and party,” says Gup. “He had a major roving eye for women. He didn’t marry until he was close to 40, and married a 19-year-old. He was a real character.”
“I was 30 when he died,” says Gup. “He was driving himself to work at the age of 94.”
Canton, Ohio, is again suffering from a deep recession. This year a new anonymous donor has stepped forward with $15,000. In a Thanksgiving Day item placed again in the Canton Repository newspaper, the donor has offered $100 to 150 recipients, adjusted for inflation. This seed money has generated additional donations, and now over $20,000 has been collected to help over 200 families. Recipients will be chosen by a priest, a pastor and a rabbi.