By Harriet P. Gross
The first chapter of this fascinating story was written back in 1933. The second came along 75 years later, in 2008. For the three quarters of a century in between, the story lay silent in an old, brown leather suitcase.
It began in Canton, Ohio, at Christmas time in the depths of the Great Depression, when half of the town’s breadwinners were out of work. Sam Stone, a rich merchant who owned nine menswear stores in the region, decided to help so that at least some of those poor people would have a happier holiday. He allocated $750 to his “cause,” then placed an ad in the local paper one week before the holiday, asking those in need to write to him with details of their plight. But he didn’t sign his real name to the ad. He adopted an alias, B. Virdot.
Sam planned on helping 75 people, but when sad letters started pouring in, he decided to cut the largesse in half, doubling the number of recipients so 150 individuals would each get a check for $5. (That was more than OK in ’33, when a single dollar had the buying power of almost $10 today.)
Sam, as secretive as he was generous, had squirreled away all the letters and his canceled checks in that suitcase. Ted Gup learned some of his grandfather’s many secrets when his mother, at age 80, finally handed it over to him just five years ago.
There was, of course, no B.Virdot. The moniker was built from portions of the first names of Sam’s three daughters: Beatrice, Virginia, and Dorothy, nicknamed Dotsy. But Sam Stone was itself a made-up name. The giver of gifts had been born Sam Finkelstein in Romania, where he lived an early life of poverty and anti-Semitic hardship with his parents and four siblings. The family came to the United States when he was 15 and settled in Pennsylvania, where Sam had his first business fling and endured the shame of bankruptcy. Then he took off by himself for Ohio, built a new business with Canton as its headquarters, and seems to have dropped all connections with the Finkelsteins, in both identity and actuality. He also wrote out Romania from the history of his life.
This story’s third chapter is a book. Sam’s grandson Ted Gup, an investigative reporter and college journalism professor, immediately thought about writing one when he started sifting through the contents of that battered suitcase. But first, he contacted and interviewed all the people he could locate, using those 75-year-old letters for his source material. He was able to find only one living letter writer: Helen Grant. As a 14-year-old, Grant had sent Sam a pathetic story about no money for any kind of Christmas celebration at her house; there wasn’t even enough for her to get a new pair of shoes. She said the soles of her old ones were so badly worn that she’d lined them with cardboard cut from an empty Shredded Wheat cereal box.
But Gup was able to locate more than 50 direct descendants of those letter writers, and upon publication of his book, he joined them all together to celebrate. There, Helen Grant told what she did when B.Virdot’s check arrived: she first took her whole family out to dinner and a show, then bought herself a new pair of shoes.
Writing this book gave Ted Gup new insights into his grandfather. Sam didn’t want only to help poor people; he also wanted to know if their suffering was anything like what he had experienced in the Old Country. This way, he was able to empathize while remaining anonymous.
Gup’s book, “A Secret Gift,” offers a snapshot of both the Depression era and the enigmatic Sam Stone. Today, you can purchase a copy online for less than B. Virdot gave to Helen Grant in 1933. Reading it makes an interesting, even inspiring, start for a new year!