B. Verdot's Secret
America was deep in the grip The Great Depression on Dec. 17, 1933. People were not only out of work but many were forced to endure the agony of not being able to feed their own children, of watching a sick kid with no medicine nor even heat to give. So on that memorable day, a 158-word ad appeared in the Canton, Ohio, newspaper that we just now have learned changed some lives forever.
The small ad appeared under the heading, “In Consideration of the White Collar Man!” and it was signed “B. Verdot, (c/o) General Delivery, Canton, Ohio.” The ad was addressed to those suffering and promised modest relief if they would momentarily swallow their pride and write why they needed the money.
The ad clearly stated its gifts were to go to men and women who might otherwise “be hesitant to knock at charity’s door for aid.” The response was quite something because, you must remember, virtually no one asked for charity during the Depression because every town, every family, and everyone was affected.
As a recent story in the Wall Street Journal explained, “Most correspondents wanted a job or a loan, not a handout. What they desired most was dignity. Charles Stewart, an unemployed clerk and bookkeeper, couldn’t work in a factory because tuberculosis had wrecked one of his lungs. He asked B. Virdot to reveal his own real name so that Stewart might one day repay any gift with interest.”
Another letter was written to B. Verdot from Rachel DeHoff, a 35-year-old recently-widowed woman with four years of education, no savings, a mortgage and two sons. “It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope – that this terrible depression will soon be over. I have never received charity of any kind.”
With B. Verdot’s help, Rachel did indeed hold on, and went on to become the first female Realtor in the state of Ohio.
Over 50 checks were written that Christmas, all anonymously signed “B. Verdot,” for no one in Canton had such a name, and most gifts were for $5.00, which was then equivalent to about $100 today. No one ever knew who B. Verdot really was. But, in the 77 years that have followed, there has come along a grandson of the real culprit who just so happens to be a gifted writer named Ted Gup.
Gup, also a native of Canton, is today a journalism professor in Boston and last week he unveiled a marvelous book, “A Secret Gift,” about a man he knew all of his life as Samuel J. Stone. Ironically, in his investigative efforts the author was shocked to learn that wasn’t his beloved grandfather’s real name, either!
Samuel Stone, as he was widely known in 1933, owned a very successful chain of clothing stores in Ohio but only now do we understand the book’s subtitle, “How One Man’s Kindness – and a Trove of Letters – Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.”
It seems that after Mr. Stone died in 1981, young Ted’s mother gave her son a battered satchel full of letters. She told her son little about its contents but Ted, digging through the papers sometime later, found out his grandfather was actually the mysterious donor, “B. Verdot,” and that he’d devised the moniker long ago by blending his daughter’s names –- Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy (“Dotsy”) –- into the pseudonym.
Ted, who once worked for the Washington Post, began tracking down those who had written his grandfather and, in the process, learned his grandfather was really Sam Finkelstein who was born in a Jewish shtetl in Dorohoi, Romania. It seems his family was forced to flee when Sam was 15 because of horrific religious persecution and that his family had entered the U.S. illegally.
Sam never normalized his immigration status, had changed his name to Stone, and most probably that, too, would have never been revealed if Ted hadn’t found out the truth in his search of what ever happened to those who his grandfather helped during their bleakest times. Each story Ted tells is just as wonderful as that of his grandfather.
Last week in Canton there was a much-ballyhooed reception where many descendants of those who had been helped by the anonymous B. Verdot related one story after another. It was also speculated one clear reason the true identity of B. Verdot was never known was because –- let’s face it – Samuel Stone’s real story may have also come to light.
In trying to find a reason for his grandfather’s secret gifts, Ted writes in the book, “To the suffering of his fellow townspeople, the act had brought relief and hope. But to Sam, it signaled a personal triumph in which he could finally believe that he had escaped the persecution, rejection, and poverty that had defined his past.”
The same Ted Gup wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times a couple of years ago, on Dec. 22, 2008, entitled, “Hard Times, a Helping Hand.” Allow me to share its ending:
“For many Americans, this Christmas will be grim. Here, in Ohio, food banks and shelters are trying to cope with the fallout from plant closings, layoffs, foreclosures and bankruptcies. The family across the street lost their home. From our breakfast table, we look out on their house, dark and vacant.
"Multibillion-dollar bailouts to banks and Wall Street have yet to bring relief to those humbled by need and overwhelmed by debt. Already, the B. Virdot in me – in each of us – can hear the words of our neighbors.”
Gracious golly, how this country yearns for another with the heart of B. Verdot.