One topic that’s been “done to death” in the world of books is that of the Great Depression. It seems very little new could possibly be written about it. But I’ve come across a very interesting book just published that sheds new light on this chapter of American history – and does so with a personal poignancy that strikes right to the heart.
The book is A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression, written by Ted Gup, a former investigative reporter with the Washington Post (ISBN-10: 1594202702 … also available in a Kindle edition). It’s about an act of kindness done by the owner of a chain of clothing stores, who posted a pseudonymous announcement in December 1933 in his hometown (Canton, Ohio) newspaper offering to send holiday cheer to those in need.
The holiday cheer was in the form of $5 checks (worth about $100 in today’s money) which were sent to ~150 families in response to letters received that described family hardships of that year – one of the worst of the entire Great Depression. The announcement stated that the identities of the letter-writers would be kept secret “until the very end.”
This act of kindness would remain hidden for decades until Ted Gup’s mother (the daughter of the benefactor) gave the author a suitcase filled with memorabilia from her father, Samuel J. Stone. Among the artifacts was a bundle of letters written to a person named “B. Virdot.”
At first seemingly unrelated to the author’s grandfather, the giveaway clue was an old clipping of the “B. Virdot” newspaper announcement, revealing that “B. Virdot” was, in actuality, Samuel Stone.
The letters sent by families laid low by the economic events of the day revealed that the Great Depression did not discriminate by social class or status. Some of the checks Mr. Stone sent were to former business owners who had lost their companies, savings, insurance policies and homes.
Many other checks were sent to families of more modest means; one was sent to a recently widowed mother of two children who had no savings and a house mortgage. “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. She went on to state, “I have never received charity of any kind.”
That’s one of the themes that runs through the letters: These were people with dignity, who were not inclined to ask for charity nor even to discuss their plight with others. They had played by the rules in their lives – taking responsible jobs, buying homes, building their savings, raising their families – until the collapse of the economy and closure of the banks robbed them of nearly everything.
Drawing on his investigative reporting background, Ted Gup proceeded to research as many of the families as he could find, to learn more about them and to interview their descendants (he would eventually interview nearly 500 descendants).
One of the interesting aspects of this endeavor was how few of the people he interviewed really understood (or even knew) the hardships that their families had suffered in that time. Yet tell-tale signs were there when descendants were told of the events those many years ago. One son spoke of his mother: “There was a loss of confidence. For her, the good times were wonderful, then all hell broke out. Friends of hers said she had been full of pep and vigor. I didn’t know her that way at all, so I think it probably did a job on her.”
Dignity was important to these people of the 1930s, when folks felt uncomfortable talking about hardships with their relatives or with their children. Yet they opened up to a total stranger in their letters – maybe the only time they ever did so. One man asked “B. Virdot” to reveal his real name to him so that one day he might repay the gift with interest.
But Samuel Stone never did so. Instead, he took his secret to the grave. And his grandson discovered that this wasn’t the only secret his grandfather had kept. Instead of being “Samuel J. Stone, born in Pittsburgh” as he’d always claimed, Ted Gup found out that his grandfather’s real name was Sam Finkelstein … and instead of being from Pennsylvania, he had been born in Dorohoi, Rumania.
Not only that, it turns out that Sam Finkelstein entered the United States illegally and never normalized his immigration status – even after becoming a prosperous businessman in America. Even much later, during World War II when the U.S. government required foreign-born residents to register or risk deportation, Samuel Stone was still afraid to take any chances and did not step forward.
So what in the end was the basis for Samuel Stone’s gesture to his fellow Canton residents? Was it an act of kindness delivered anonymously so that the families in question could maintain their dignity and not have to face the person who knew their innermost hardships and fears? Or was it Stone’s own fear of being discovered as an illegal alien that kept his gifts anonymous?
That part of the story will never be explained. But thanks to Ted Gup, the grandson, we have a surprising new story to add to the chronicles of the Great Depression.
And this one is more inspiring, heartwarming – and intensely personal – than any other I’ve read. As the author himself states, “For one moment, in one forgotten town, one man managed to shrink the vastness of the Depression to a human scale.”
As a side note, Samuel Stone would keep his promise “until the very end,” but 400 of the descendants of those who wrote the letters held a gathering in Canton just last week in a reunion that was never meant to happen — but did, thanks to this book. (And one of those who wrote a letter to “B. Virdot,” now a a 90-year-old woman, was actually on hand for the occasion.)
This book is definitely at the top of my list for holiday gift-giving this season. I heartily recommend it – it’s that good.