Let’s play a brief free association game. A city. Canton, Ohio. What comes to mind? Chances are, particularly if you’re a baby booming male, the first thought that popped into your head was The Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, if you weren’t raised in the Ohio Valley, that may be the only item you connected with Canton, Ohio.
Odd at first blush that a book I’m about to share with you, centering on Canton, Ohio during the depression years with bits and pieces of post-depression sequelae, mentions nary a word about the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A Secret Gift is the type of book that one would be most likely to stumble upon with the pleasure of time to browse in a bookstore like BookTowne. It is an amazing story, one that was first told in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times three years ago in December, 2008. When its author, Ted Gup, worked the op-ed piece into book form, the Times gave it ample coverage though the book regrettably never made it onto my radar screen. The YouTube introduction to the story has only 668 views to date, numbers to which I can hopefully add by spreading the news.
This is a story of infinite depth, perfect for year’s end because it dwells on the concept of giving, but at so many levels touching upon sociology, psychopathy, and religion, just to name a few. It is a story of immigration, assimilation, poverty, wealth, risk, and oh so much more! There’s a very personal side, with the protagonist being the author’s grandfather.
Imagine having Ted Gup in your family, making believe that his discovery of a suitcase of letters dating from December 1933, in the heart of the Depression Era, is exciting fodder for discussion. He’s intrigued that his grandfather, Sam Stone, is a Secret Santa of sorts who was able to conceal his identity for 75 years. That is, until grandson Ted exposes grandpa Sam as the mystery benefactor, B. Virdot, who distributed one-hundred and fifty $5 checks to Cantonians down on their luck in the vice-grip of the Great Depression. My intent here is to tell you that Ted Gup has taken a potentially boring piece of history and brought it to life in a way that will make you want to learn more about his grandfather’s story.
Sam Finkelstein, a Romanian Jew, anglicized his name shortly after the family’s arrival in Pittsburgh. In Yiddish, finkl means sparkle and stein means stone, hence the name change to Stone. While the cultural tone of the book is set largely by the Depression, it is also a saga of Jews seeking acceptance in America – The Goldena Medina. Much of what you need to know about the financial climate of the era is summed up by Gup’s Harry Truman quotation: It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours. Much of what you need to know about the identity crisis that Sam Stone nee Finkelstein faced, and why this is a story wrapped in Christmas, remains contemporary.
One of Sam Stone’s favorite toasts at funerals was this:
He was a simple honest man. He never strayed,
He never drank, he never smoked, and he never kissed a maid.
And when he passed away his insurance was denied,
Because he never lived, they claimed he never died.
Sam Stone was neither a simple man nor, as one gathers from his grandson Ted’s investigative reporting, an honest man. He re-invented himself in leaving Pittsburgh, shedding his past for the future he envisioned in Canton. Many of us have immigrant ancestors who did what they had to do in order to survive. Though certainly there were Jews of that era who held steadfastly to religion and its rituals, the overwhelming majority re-shaped the rules. Particularly during the financial crunch of the depression, their actions were motivated by what they perceived to be in their family’s best interests. The deception that led to Sam Stone wallpapering over his immigrant past was also part of why and how he chose to play out his Christmas-time mystery Santa charade. To appreciate his story in all its complexity is to understand a very special era left to us by a man in letters. Though his grandson will never be in Pro Football’s Hall of Fame, he has crafted a Hall of Fame legacy for his grandfather. What better gift can there be for a departed soul?