Good Deeds in Hard Times

How one man’s small, secret gifts of charity during the Great Depression kept a world afloat.

Some of the 11,000 jobless in Cleveland register for temporary work, Nov. 13, 1930, during the Great Depression. (AP)

In the deepest depths of the Great Depression – December, 1933 – a little note appeared in an Ohio newspaper: If you’re in trouble, write me.

And many, many did. For shoes. A coat. For mercy. For food. To save their family from despair. And back came checks, under a pseudonym.

Investigative journalist Ted Gup saw the desperate letters and figured out that the benefactor was his grandad.

It’s a remarkable story of giving in hard times. It is relevant right now. A national story, a personal story, and a secret gift. Plus, we look at what’s up with billionaire philanthropy today.

-Tom Ashbrook


Ted Gup, longtime investigative journalist for the Washington Post and Time. He’s now chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College. His new book is “A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness–and a Trove of Letters–Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.” Link here to an audio excerpt.

Helen Palm, a 90-year-old woman from Canton, Ohio, whose letter written as a young girl (see below) during the Great Depression found its way to writer Ted Gup and became part of the story in “A Secret Gift.”

Stephanie Strom, reporter for the New York Times. Read her article, “Pledge to Give Away Fortunes Stirs Debate.”

Here’s Helen Palm’s letter:

Dear Sir,

When we went over at the neighbors to borrow the paper I read your article. I am a girl of fourteen. I am writing this because I need clothing. And sometimes we run out of food.

My father does not want to ask for charity. But us children would like to have some clothing for Christmas. When he had a job us children used to have nice things.

I also have brothers and sisters.

If you should send me Te[n] Dollars I would buy clothing and buy the Christmas dinner and supper.

I thank you.


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