Bainbridge Island Review


A Secret Gift | Kitsap Week

December 21, 2012 · 7:48 AM

The Great Depression was devastating. Unemployment in the U.S. rose to 25 percent, and in some countries rose as high as 33 percent. The sharecropping system increased with the creation of tenant farmers following the failure of many small farms. / National Archives


Like so many North Kitsap residents, we sent our check to Bellringer, the extraordinary holiday program started in 1946 by Frank and Mabel Raab and administered by the Poulsbo Noon Lions. Last year, $33,061 was raised, providing 102 Christmas dinners for local families and helping more than 300 local people in need.

As I put the check in the mail I was reminded of a great gift I was given last holiday season — Ted Gup’s remarkable book, “A Secret Gift.” Gup, a former reporter for The Washington Post, was given a suitcase full of memorabilia from his grandmother. Opening the suitcase some months later, he found a roll of letters wrapped around an ad from the Dec. 17, 1933 Canton Repository.

The ad indicated the writer knew of the dire economic times families were experiencing and that he pledged to help 50 to 75 families during the holiday season. Anyone seeking such assistance should write B. Virdot, General Delivery, Canton, Ohio. The requests and gifts would be kept confidential.

Gup had never heard the name “B. Virdot” and had no idea why the letters were in the suitcase. Opening the letters, his journey of discovery began.Virdot initially intended $750 to assist 75 needy families during this holiday season in the depth of the Great Depression. “Virdot” received so many requests that he revised the plan and gave 150 families $5 toward their holiday cheer. The letters wrapped around the ad were the 150 recipients of the gifts. “B. Virdot” was Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone.

The author commenced research on his grandfather and the families who received the gift. Did it impact their lives? What inspired them to request the gift? Were any of the recipients still living?

Through his research, we learn much about the Depression: The hard-working men and women who had no place to work. The businessman standing at the bank’s front door to get his employees’ Christmas bonuses only to find the bank closed, his money gone. The wife who writes for a gift describing her husband in glowing words and how difficult it is for him not to provide for his family. At the same time, unbeknownst to his spouse, her husband writing about what an extraordinary family he had and how they deserve a good Christmas that he can not provide. The physician who delivered hundreds of babies with no expectation of compensation. The children scouring along the railroad tracks for lumps of coal the wind may have blown off the coal car, to provide needed heat.

“A Secret Gift” is a holiday journey we should all take to remind us of our blessings and good fortune. To understand that so many good, hard-working folks are in need this season.

A dear friend of mine recently told the story of how, as a young boy, he asked his grandmother if she believed in Santa Claus. She told him about the Christmas her Dad had drank away all the family’s money, how there was nothing left for presents. On Christmas morning there was a knock on the door. No one was visible as the door opened. A basket of food had been placed on the top step. Does she believe in Santa Claus? Absolutely.

To a lesser scale, last Christmas we had a family miscommunication. Our traditional Christmas-morning cinnamon rolls had not been purchased. After decades, the tradition would be broken. At 7 a.m. there was a knock on our door. One of our friends had heard on Christmas Eve of our error. There he was, at the door, with a pan of cinnamon rolls he had made for us. Our tradition would continue. Do I believe in Santa Claus? You bet.

To paraphrase the great philosopher Pogo, “I have met Santa Claus and he is us.”

Please help someone struggling this season as best you can. Through Bellringer or a church or service club. Such sharing is the best thing we can do for them. And ourselves. Just ask B. Virdot.

Happy holidays.

— Jeff Tolman has practiced law in Poulsbo for more than 30 years. He is a periodic contributor to the North Kitsap Herald. Copyright Jeff Tolman 2012


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