Friday, August 5, 2016

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

I am not sure where I first heard the name Ted Gup. It could have been a Goodreads friend, or it could have been an article by that author written more recently. When I investigated his name more closely, I discovered he’d written a book, this book, in 2010 about discovering a suitcase of letters in his grandmother’s attic. I’d recently had that experience, finding a huge trove of WWI memorabilia behind a wall in my great aunt’s attic: notes and photos from the front and letters back describing a 1918 adherence to government rationing on meat consumption which led families to resort to eating woodchuck.

Gup’s experience was different. The letters he found were in response to an ad placed in a newspaper in the height of the Depression in Canton, Ohio close on Christmas 1933. The ad invited readers to send a letter to a Mr. B. Virdot describing their hardships. Mr. Virdot promised to send a gift to 50-75 individuals whose identities “would always remain secret.” “There is a question in my mind whether I would accept charity directly offered by welfare organizations,” he wrote. “I know there are hundreds of men faced with economic problems who think, feel and act the same way.”

Mr. B. Virdot was Ted Gup’s grandfather, who lied for years about his origins and his name. This book is the story of uncovering that history, and of finding and fleshing out histories of the families whom Mr. Virdot helped that Christmas in 1933. How many letters were delivered to the paper in response to the advert is not recorded. Initially Mr. Virdot had intended to respond to 50-75 letters but the numbers and the needs were so great that Virdot halved the amount to each family and doubled the number of recipients to exhaust the $750 dollars he had deposited in an account at Canton’s George D. Harter Bank. Some of the 150 letters are reprinted in this account along with a backstory of the individual asking for aid.
" was the smallness of B. Virdot's gift--a mere five dollars--that was its magic, not an act of governmental grandiosity but a gesture of human compassion."
I am reluctant to reveal the history of Sam Stone, as Mr. B. Virdot was known in real life, because his history is so tied in with American history at the turn of the last century and is the reason behind my fascination with this book. Sam Stone’s history began for his grandson only when he appeared in Ohio, at age thirty. The years before were shrouded in mystery and this book reveals how that happened. It took years of research to uncover that history, crisscrossing the east coast searching for clues. The truth lies in a dark period in America when xenophobia, anti-immigration policies, discrimination, and suspicion were aimed at immigrants suspected of carrying the contagion of radicalism. The period described here would be a terrific setting for a novel. Writers, take note!

Sam Stone, writing in the newspaper ad as Mr. B. Virdot, had experienced hardship. Because of that, he opened his heart and his wallet to try and ease the lives of those he saw suffering around him. How did B. Virdot have $750 in cash to hand out at that time? Well, the truth of it was that he didn’t have much. His business as a clothing store salesman had suffered enormous setbacks, e.g., fire, theft, and collapse in 1929. But Sam Stone was grateful that his business had a good year in 1933, and he wanted to share the wealth. His grandson tells us that for the rest of his life “nothing, in his view, beat the hot dogs at Woolworth’s lunch counter.”

This story is significant for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly it allows one to wander years not so far distant in our nation’s history when people saw widespread deprivation first hand and suffered the indignities of poverty. “There is no romanticizing the wreckage it wrought,” Gup writes. “But it also rid us of our sense of entitlement and made us take inventory of our intangible wealth. The Depression was like a great anvil upon which our national character was beaten into shape. It forged an indomitable spirit we later recognized as ‘The Greatest Generation.’”

In one of the photos included in the book, and in one of the last family histories, Gup recounts his conversation with the youngest of the letter-writers to Mr. B. Virdot. Helen Palm was fourteen when she answered the ad placed by B. Virdot.
"My father does not want to ask for charity. But us children would like to have some clothing for Christmas…If you should send me Ten Dollars I would buy clothing and buy the Christmas dinner and supper. I thank you. Helen Palm"
Gup found Helen Palm, now Helen Kintz Grant, in a nursing home just outside of Canton. Upon receiving the five dollars, she said in 2010, “I went right down and bought a pair of shoes.” She’d been cutting out the shape of her sole from an empty shredded-wheat cereal box and inserting into her shoes. The rest of the money went to taking her family out to eat.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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