“I am writing this because I need clothing,” intoned Helen Palm on the stage of Canton, Ohio’s Palace Theater on Friday. “And sometimes we run out of food.” If the words sounded familiar to Palm, it’s because she wrote them nearly 80 years ago. And the intended recipient was a rags-to-riches Romanian Jewish immigrant who shared his fortune with families in need through a now-legendary series of newspaper advertisements.
The identity of the donor — a secret until last week — was finally revealed at a reunion of hundreds of family members who’d benefited from the generosity of “B. Virdot”, The New York Times reported.
“Virdot’s” mystery lasted 75 years. Then, in 2008, a Canton native named Ted Gup received a suitcase stuffed with his late grandfather’s papers, including letters addressed to “B. Virdot,” the Times wrote. Gup, a journalism professor at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, “discovered that B. Virdot was his grandfather, Samuel J. Stone, who escaped poverty and persecution as a Jew in Romania to build a successful chain of clothing stores in the United States.” Stone conjured up the B. Virdot moniker by combining the names of his daughters, Barbara and Dorothy, and Gup’s mother, Virginia.
According to the Canton Repository — the newspaper that originally carried the ads in 1933 — individuals and families who found themselves “confronted with an economic situation where the bread of tomorrow is the problem of today” should write to Virdot of their need, his ad requested. He would send 50 to 75 of the most needy a financial gift, he promised, so they might make their holiday more joyful.
Because of the abundance of letters, Stone sent out “a flurry of 150 modest checks to families around Canton,” Gup said. Most of the checks were for as little as $5, the Repository wrote. Helen Palm — now 90-year-old Helen Kintz Grant — is the last surviving letter-writer, according to the Repository. At the Canton reunion, letters including hers were read to music after a presentation by Gup based on “A Gift to Remember,” a new book about his grandfather’s clandestine generosity. “People today in our own difficult times can draw strength and inspiration” from the story, Gup said.