In the height of the Great Depression, Myrna Jury was in economic despair, which explains her reply to the advertisement of a stranger who had run an ad in the Dec. 18, 1933, issue of the Canton (Ohio) Repository. The ad was titled "In Consideration of the White Collar Man!" and offered assistance from an anonymous source to families in need.
Jury wrote and reported that her husband had been out of work three years but was now making "40 cents," adding, "We're in debt." The Jurys then had four children, including Charles, age 7. "They all need shoes and clothes, and Charles needs an overcoat." She mentioned that her spouse would not permit her to seek assistance for the clothes, hence her P.S.: "I decided to write without telling my husband."
Nearly 75 years to the day after Jury wrote that letter, on Christmas Eve 2008, Ted Gup, a former reporter for the Washington Post, knocked on the door of one of her descendants. He wanted to know what had happened to the family. His sleuthing would uncover that 7-year-old Charles required an overcoat, in part, because his responsibilities had come to include hunting for the family's dinner.
"He routinely brought with him a 16-gauge shotgun and .22-caliber pistol, boarded a city bus, paid the five cents (except when the driver took pity and let him ride for free), and rode the bus to the end of the line and out into the countryside. There, he scoured the fields and woods for rabbits and pheasants," Gup would later detail.
When the state offered Charles' father seeds for their garden, the patriarch refused, despite the pleas of his son. We know this because Charles' children, Charles Jr. and Elizabeth, remember their father telling them of conflict over whether to accept help.
Why was Ted Gup so interested in the plight of the Jury family?
Because his grandfather, Sam Stone, was the man who had run the newspaper ad offering to help his neighbors "spend a merry and joyful Christmas." This, despite the fact that Stone was Jewish. Stone used an alias, Mr. B. Virdot - the moniker a combination of the names of his daughters, Barbara, Virginia, and Dorothy.
Gup's grandfather sent 150 families checks of $5 not an insignificant sum in 1933, considering that bread was then 7 cents a loaf. He took to his grave the secret of his generosity. And there it remained for more than seven decades until Gup's mother, at the time of her 80th birthday, handed over a dusty suitcase to her son, which contained copies of the letters and check receipts. Gup, in his role as both family archivist and former investigative reporter, then endeavored to learn why his grandfather was moved to make contributions and what happened to the receipts.
The result is a poignant manuscript, A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness - and a Trove of Letters - Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression. (With support from Philly.com, I am hosting Gup on Tuesday night at Bryn Mawr Film Institute.)
Today, with unemployment just below 10 percent, we can learn a great deal from those who were suffering at a rate more than twice that. The requests sent to Mr. B. Virdot were heartbreaking:
". . . I experienced the loss of all of my stock holdings, my home and everything of value I possessed together with 35 years of hard work and efforts, leaving me without a dollar to support my family," wrote Frank J. Dick.
Many wanted loans, not gifts:
"I could use $2 Xmas so that my wife & I could go to her home in Alliance, but as a loan," wrote Geo. Carlin.
Some admitted to brushes with the law:
"Becoming restless, my husband went from place to place looking for work. . . . Finally, after every effort was exhausted, he fell in with some bad company and finally landed in the Mansfield reformatory where is listed as a depression inmate," wrote Mrs. A. Wright.
All of the letters were beautifully written:
"In this evening's Repository, I see that you want to put a little Christmas cheer in homes where it is needed, so I am daring to write to you in the hopes that I may be one of the fortunate ones," wrote A.C. Bennafield.
Some asked for assistance for others:
"But I have a very Dear friend that can't afford to get a paper to even see your ad," wrote Mrs. Ruby Blythe, without mentioning that her very Dear friend were her own parents.
And many wrote thank yous:
"It was put to good use paying for 2 pairs of shoes for my girls and other little necessities. I hope some day I have the pleasure of knowing to whom we are indebted for this very generous gift," George W. Monnot wrote.
The only recipient to learn of the identity of their benefactor was Helen Palm, who had written to Mr. B Virdot at the age of 14. "I am writing this because I need clothing. And sometimes we run out of food. My father does not want to ask for charity." While Sam Stone carried his identity to his grave, his grandson, Ted Gup, found presumably the only living recipient of Sam's largesse just as he was putting A Secret Gift to bed.
Now, she knows what the rest never did. That Stone's ability to brighten their Christmas, a holiday he would himself not celebrate, was a recognition that he personally had triumphed, that he had bested persecution, rejection, and poverty. And that in the midst of the Great Depression, he had found some degree of solace by giving. Four years later, Sam Stone would declare personal bankruptcy. And he would overcome that, too.
For more information on the evening with Ted Gup, or to contact Michael Smerconish, visit www.smerconish.com.