Saturday, November 27, 2010

B. Virdot - Christmas Mystery Man

"The year was 1933 and Christmas was just a week away. Deep in the trough of the Great Depression, the people of Canton, Ohio, were down on their luck and hungry. Nearly half the town was out of work. Along the railroad tracks, children in patched coats scavenged for coal spilled from passing trains. The prison and orphanage swelled with the casualties of hard times.

It was then that a mysterious "B. Virdot" took out a tiny ad in the Canton Repository, offering to help the needy before Christmas. All he asked was that they write to him and tell him of their hardships. B. Virdot, he said, was not his real name, and no one would ever know his true identity. He pledged that those who wrote to him would also remain anonymous.

Letters poured into the post office by the hundreds. From every corner of the beleaguered town they came—from the baker, the bellhop, the steeplejack, the millworker, the blacksmith, the janitor, the pipe fitter, the salesman, the fallen executive. All of them told their stories in the hope of receiving a hand. And in the days thereafter, $5 checks went out to 150 families across the town. Today, $5 doesn't sound like much, but back then it was more like $100. For many, it was more money than they had seen in months. So stunning was the offer that it was featured in a front-page story in the newspaper, and word of it spread a hundred miles.

For many of those who received a check signed by B. Virdot, the Christmas of 1933 would be among their most memorable. And despite endless speculation about his identity, B. Virdot remained unknown, as did the names of those he helped. Years passed. The forges and shops of Canton came back to life, and memories of the Great Depression gradually faded. B. Virdot went to his grave along with many of those he had helped. But his secret was intact. And so it seemed destined to remain.

Then in 2008—75 years later—and 600 miles away, in an attic in Kennebunk, Maine, my 80-year-old mother handed me a battered old suitcase. "Some old papers," she said. At first I didn't know what to make of them—so many handwritten letters, many difficult to read, and all dated December 1933 and addressed to a stranger named B. Virdot. The same name appeared on a stack of 150 canceled checks. It was only after I found the yellowed newspaper article that carried the story of the gift that I came to realize what my mother had given me.

B. Virdot was my grandfather."

Read some of the amazing letters, and follow the author as he locates the children of the $5 recipients, in the Smithsonian article here.

Apparently, the author has written a book about this too: A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness--and a Trove of Letters--Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression

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