By GARY BROWN
B. Virdot has come to symbolize a spirit of giving. The story started 77 years ago, and it bears retelling on Christmas because of the feeling it fosters in the hearts of those who hear it.
Days before the holiday in 1933, Sam Stone, a Jewish businessman in Canton who had known both failure and success, decided to give out $5 gifts to 150 people who responded to his advertisement in The Repository and told him how they had been hit hard by the Depression.
Evidence of gifts was recovered two years ago when Stone’s grandson, former Canton resident Ted Gup, found the letters in a family suitcase and recalled his grandfather’s generosity in a book, “A Secret Gift.”
The gifts were revived after Gup staged a program at the Palace Theatre, “A Night to Remember,” which recalled B. Virdot, a name Stone had formed from letters in the names of his three daughters.
Three Stark County men were touched by B. Virdot’s selfless act and decided he should “live again,” as one of them explained. They offered to give $15,000, an amount roughly equivalent after inflation to the size of Stone’s $750 gift in 1933.
The men wanted to give $100 gifts to 150 who wrote to explain how they had been hurt by the current recession.
Their gifts would be made in the name that Stone had chosen to use almost eight decades before.
More than 700 letters of need came in to the newspaper, to be reviewed by a panel of clergy.
“We expected a lot of letters,” one of the donors said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we were absolutely flabbergasted by the people who gave money.”
Checks from people who wanted to remain anonymous — some just sent cash through the mail — came mostly in $100 amounts.
Some individuals gave more than a single gift. A handful of donors wrote checks of $1,000 or more. Their motives were simple, they wrote. People who had money wanted to use it to help those in the community who possessed little.
To date, more than $49,000 has been donated by 186 individuals — enough to offer $100 gifts to 480 families in need.
“I think it says something about the people of the Canton area, about the goodness of people who ... feel a connection to each other, who still want to help each other by giving a Christmas to people who are feeling the pinch of difficult times.”
LETTERS OF NEED
And the times indeed are difficult. The letters show that.
“I am struggling to make ends meet,” said one single mother. “My rent and utilities exceed my income.”
A couple, fighting illness, “used all our savings and other resources to help us pay our bills and now we have nothing. We lost our home this year.”
“Things are grim here,” said Executive Editor Jeff Gauger to National Public Radio correspondent Noah Adams, who aired a story about the B. Virdot gifts earlier this week. “Fully 25 percent of the children in our county live in poverty. That translates into people in need, who — hundreds of them — have now sent us letters, whose need is so acute that $100, merely $100, will make a difference for them.”
Adams, whose interviews of a donor and a letter writer can be heard at NPR’s website, is not the only member of the national media to come to Canton to seek out the spirit of B. Virdot.
Stories about Stone’s original gifts and how they spawned the current giving have been published in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and a number of other newspapers nationwide that have picked up the Associated Press story and other wire-service reports.
Gup wrote an article for Smithsonian Magazine, and CBS News filmed the Palace Theatre program for a segment of “Sunday Morning” that appeared after Thanksgiving. “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” is scheduled to air a follow-up segment Monday.
The spread of the story of B. Virdot to communities outside of Canton has brought in new contributions — and word of individuals interested in starting B. Virdot campaigns of their own.