It was the week before Christmas 1933 — the depths of the Great Depression. In Canton, Ohio, a town beset by 50% unemployment and numbing despair, an ad appeared in the local newspaper offering modest help to people who had fallen on hard times. Those in need were instructed to write to an anonymous donor who went by the name “B. Virdot,” and he would send the neediest of them a check for $5, about $90 by today's measure. The next day hundreds of letters poured in.
The checks went out within days, 150 of them, timed to arrive before Christmas. They went to Harry Stanley, a blacksmith out of work for two years, hoping to provide his five children a Christmas dinner; to Charles Minor, a jobless steeplejack who was living on bread and coffee; to Howard Sommers, reduced to selling dandelions in summer, sassafras in winter and pencils door-to-door; and to Ruby Blythe, who asked nothing for herself but sought help for a neighbor whose children had no clothes for school and only bread for Christmas dinner.
It was not until 2008 — 75 years later — that anyone discovered the identity of the mysterious B. Virdot. The answer was found in an old suitcase my mother gave me on her 80th birthday. It was filled with letters, all of them dated Dec. 18, 1933, and addressed to B. Virdot. From the contents it was clear: B. Virdot was my grandfather, Samuel J. Stone. Not the wealthy Christian do-gooder the town of Canton had imagined, but the immigrant son of Orthodox Jews who had fled the pogroms of Romania. The name “B. Virdot” was a combination of his three daughters' names — “B” for Barbara, “Vir” for Virginia (my mother) and “Dot” for Dorothy.
The story of B. Virdot might well have ended there, but it did not. Like many such acts of kindness, it proved to have a power that continued to resonate. The suitcase and its letters had found their way to me, a writer, during the Great Recession, and they seemed to be addressed to another generation facing uncertainty and hardship. But as a writer I feared that the monetary amount was too modest — a mere $5 — for any of the recipients' descendants to have heard about the gift and recall what it had meant. How wrong I was.
For the next year, as I researched a book on the secret gifts, I went about tracking down the descendants of the letter writers, some still living in Canton, others dispersed across the country. Nearly all of them wept as I shared the letters with them.
Felice May was 4 years old in 1933. The family struggled, selling milk from their tumbledown farm and trapping for pelts. One Christmas stood out from all the rest. On the Christmas when May was 4, her family went into town to the five-and-dime and her mother bought her a little pony on wheels. “My eyes bugged out,” she recalls. It was her favorite and only store-bought toy and she pulled it with her up and down the lane. In the years that followed, she always wondered how it was that in such dire times, her family could have afforded such a luxury. With my call, the mystery was solved: It was the check from B. Virdot. At 80, May was raising miniature ponies — an unbroken link to that long-ago act of kindness. “I've loved ponies all my life,” she said.
Olive Hillman's prayers were answered when the B. Virdot check arrived a few days before Christmas. Her husband was disabled from a failed suicide attempt and had been out of work for years. The mother of an 8-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, she wrote: “We all need clothes bad. I don't mind myself but am writing this in hopes that my children may have a nice Xmas.” With the check she bought her son a pair of stockings, a new cap and a train; for her daughter, Geraldine, a pair of shoes, stockings and a doll. When I located Geraldine Frye a few years ago, she was living a life of relative abundance, but that had not diminished the memory of the doll she received for Christmas in 1933. In her basement was another doll, already wrapped — a Christmas gift for her great-granddaughter, and a reminder of another time.
In 2010, when my book about B. Virdot's secret gifts was published, only one writer of the letters was still alive: 91-year-old Helen Palm. She was 14 when she wrote to B. Virdot. I wondered if she would have any recollection of the letter or the check. “Oh my God!” she said when I'd finished reading her the letter. Remember? “You better believe it!” she said. “I went right down and bought a pair of shoes.” They replaced a worn-out pair she had lined with a cardboard sole cut from a box of shredded wheat to help absorb the moisture that crept in. With the rest of the money she bought a gift for her siblings and then took her parents out to dinner.
My grandfather knew that his gifts wouldn't bring an end to the town's suffering or alter the course of the letter writers' lives. But he had learned from his own hard life that even the most modest of offerings can provide the gift of hope and the knowledge that someone cares. My grandfather, who never went beyond the third grade, knew that a gift from a stranger might have a special power to confer upon others a sense that they belonged to a larger community, that there were bonds beyond kinship that matter to us all.
After my book was published, Canton businessmen anonymously created a “B. Virdot Fund” and raised some $54,000 for the needy of Canton. In 2010, it was distributed to 500 families the week of Christmas — $100 each. The town's orchestra commissioned a symphony to be based on the story. In Orem, Utah, a family chose to forgo Christmas presents and instead set up a B. Virdot Fund to benefit 150 families.
I once thought of placing a plaque beside my grandfather's grave in Canton, something to remind passersby that this was B. Virdot's final resting place. But bronze would not do him justice. His is a living memorial that has outlasted his century and touched people as far away as Beijing and Riyadh. It is now part of the DNA of the Midwestern town he called home and the people who found in his modest gift not only new shoes, a Christmas dinner or a wooden horse, but also hope itself and a reason to be generous.
Ted Gup is a Boston-based writer and author, most recently, of "A Secret Gift." Email: firstname.lastname@example.org