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Ted Gup on the Trail of Great Depression Secrets

Sam Stone, known as B. Virdot, sent checks to destitute families during the Great Depression. (Courtesy of The Penguin Press)

Investigative journalist and Emerson College professor Ted Gup joined On Point Friday and told the story of how he uncovered a stirring act of quiet charity buried in his own family history.

It all began with an old tattered suitcase his mother gave him that contained letters from the Depression Era. Gup found requests for help and records of gifts sent in return. They were threads of a story set in a time and place marked by deep poverty and desperation.

Gup told On Point host Tom Ashbrook:

If you went back in ’33 in my hometown [Canton, Ohio], you would’ve seen a town that had unemployment approaching 50 percent…You would’ve seen children in patched coats stooped over the railroad track, picking up, scavenging, little pieces of coal that had fallen from passing trains, and [using] them…to heat their homes that night.

Gup discovered that his grandfather, Sam Stone, had helped many such Ohio residents through anonymous donations.

Those acts of giving are part of an intriguing and until-now lost history. Tom Ashbrook also spoke with the sole surviving recipient of Stone’s generosity, 90-year-old Helen Palm of Canton, Ohio. She wrote to Stone when she was 14 years old. Back then, Palm used to make shoe soles for herself by cutting out the cardboard from an empty shredded wheat box.

Here’s an excerpt of the letter she wrote in 1933:

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.

HELEN PALM

Gup’s book on his discovery is called “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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