Every now and then a book comes along that grants us the privilege of peering into the lives of people and seeing the good in everyone. A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness – And A Trove of Letters – Revealed The Hidden History of the Great Depression is such a book. Written by Ted Gup and published in 2010 by Penguin, this work of non-fiction takes the reader to the poverty pocked streets of Canton, Ohio.
It begins Sunday, December 17, 1933. Canton, with an unemployment rate of 50%, is reeling in the Great Depression. People from every walk of life are bracing themselves for a rough Christmas. A mysterious benefactor places an ad in the Canton Repository that reads:
Suppose if I were confronted with an economic situation where the bread of tomorrow is the problem of today – there is a question in my mind if I would accept charity directly offered by welfare organizations. I know there are hundreds of men that are confronted with economic problems and think, feel and act the same way.
To men or families in such position the maker of this offer, who will remain unknown until the very end, will be glad if he is given an opportunity to help from 50-75 such families so they will be able to spend a merry and joyful Christmas.
To such men or families that will request such financial aid, the writer pledges that their identity will never be revealed. Please write:
In writing, please familiarize me with your true circumstances and financial aid will be promptly sent.
I have to admit that even though this book was published three years ago, I had not heard of it until last week. We were driving in Cleveland Heights when my wife noticed a sign in front of the library on Lee Road advertising a book sale. Stuff a bag for $3! Without hesitation, we parked our minivan and the six of us – me, my wife and our daughters swarmed this house of knowledge in pursuit of literature. You see, I am a patriarch in a family of avid readers. Even the eldest of us becomes a kid in a candy store in the presence of library book sales.
I mostly read fiction these days. But I’m always on the lookout for a great history book. In literature and in life I am drawn to narratives about self-made people, the little guys who did well and gave back. While reading excerpts of the book at the Cleveland City Club a few years ago, Ted Gup told listeners that he is drawn to extraordinary tales about ordinary people. The Great Depression meant “hard times without safety nets” like unemployment benefits, social security and FDIC. It tested the mettle of every American. A small gesture like the one the hero of this book gave to his neighbors changed the lives of many people.
The hero of this story knew firsthand what it was like to experience human misery. He had been bankrupt in 1929 and would be again in 1937. Business was good in 1933 at his clothing store, but for so many around him life was one obstacle after the next. People didn’t have enough money for food, rent and warm shoes. B. Virdot, a self-made man, did not turn a blind eye to what was going on around him. He realized how lucky he was. He had a few bucks he wanted to share.
When you read this book you will see that some of the letter writers were actively engaging in the art of networking. Some of them were prominent business people in Canton who had fallen on hard times. They wrote about their skills and were asking the unknown benefactor to let them know if he hears anything about available jobs. B. Virdot sent them a check for $5 to give them hope. Perhaps things might turn around for them soon. According to Gup, the benefactor had a soft spot in his heart for people who were like him. Hard working but vulnerable to the times.
One man sending 150 checks for $5 to needy families was more than a remarkable gift. This was before Roosevelt’s New Deal had fully materialized. What little public aid existed was scarce and laden with scrutiny for anyone who had asked for it. There was a great deal of shame attached to accepting charity. Most of the letter writers in the book did not ask for anything for themselves. On their last leg, they asked for something to help their loved ones, or neighbors down the street.
$5, according to Gup, is worth around $80 to $100 today. It’s amazing how much you could buy for five bucks in those days. When writing thank you letters to B. Virdot after receiving their gifts, many recipients wrote about buying coats for multiple children and having enough left over for meat and oranges on Christmas morning.
The hero knew many of the recipients and many of them would know him if he had revealed his true identity. But unlike most benefactors, B. Virdot (a fictitious name derived by the gift giver combining the names of his three daughters Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy) did not need to have his name attached to his good deed in order to feel good. How many celebrities and businesses remain nameless when passing out donations today?
I like books that give me a better understanding of what our nation’s parents and grandparents endured when they were children. We share a special bond with them because we are descendents of the Great Depression. I think of my daughters when reading about the mothers and fathers of the 1930s, who had little for themselves, writing to an anonymous benefactor about their wanting to give something, anything, to their children at Christmas. I think of the evictions, empty savings accounts, dislocated families and orphanages that forever changed the portfolios of families after the fallout of the Great Depression. You had to be a resourceful person to survive this period. It’s no wonder that historians label the survivors of the Great Depression the greatest generation.
As you can tell, I like The Secret Gift by Ted Gup. It will forever have a place on my bookshelf and I hope my daughters pick it up one day when they want to learn more about a time in history that is never far away from home, as similarities to our nation’s current recession can attest. When you read this book, you will discover that it is not only the author’s family history but a tale about generosity and second chances. It will show you that good deeds never go unnoticed. Even if you want them to.