Biographies & Memoirs

VII.

An Opportunity to Help

057

A Dog Named Jack

058

Mr. B. Virdot didn’t just spring into being that week of December 1933. He had been taking shape for decades, in the person of Sam Stone and, before that, the refugee Sam Finkelstein. Sam always believed in repaying his debts, and by 1933 he knew he owed much to his adopted country. He also was a man of some compassion, though its source is not so easily identified. As a child no one in his family showed affection or took care of him—even a broken leg did not command sympathy. He knew what it was to go it alone, to have the world rebuff him. For years it was all he knew. But instead of hardening his heart to the world, his own hardships seemed to have made him all the more open to treating the wounds of others.

Having endured so much himself, he developed a soft spot for anything that was unable to care for itself. In Canton, he once came upon a pigeon with a broken wing. He took it home, filled the tub with water, and over the course of many days nursed the bird back to health. As long as he tended to the bird, the bathroom was off-limits to family members. It was one of many such tender acts his children remember. He also brought home an array of stray dogs, mangy and unwanted creatures to which he devoted himself. Indeed, the more neglected they appeared, the more determined he was to make room for them. His favorite was a mutt named Trixie. He first found her in the middle of the road, bloodied from having been struck by a car.

He felt that same compulsion to reach out to people in distress. He knew how even the smallest of gestures of kindness could make an otherwise brutal landscape habitable. In this he was not alone. The more overwhelming the Depression grew, the more important became these myriad small acts of caring and giving. Every child of that era has a memory of someone doing something that lifted the pall, if only for a moment. Sometimes, it was something that was not done—an act of restraint—that counted for much. The children of Roy Teis would come to learn this.

In Roy Teis’s letter to Mr. B. Virdot, he wrote:

I have been out of employment for 15 months and I have a family of eight children ranging in age from 2 yrs. To 16 yrs. We have always had a nice Christmas for the children but this year seemed to be a bad one. . . .

In the end the Teis family could not sustain itself. The eight children were scattered among nearly as many foster homes, and would not see one another for a decade. But each of the surviving children says their lives were the better for it.

One of the daughters was assigned to a “foster farm” on the edge of town, where she and a dozen other girls “orphaned” by the Depression formed their own family. To this day, they, “the sisters,” gather to celebrate the good fortune that brought them together. Another sister enjoyed sixty years of a solid marriage and two children, one of whom is mentally disabled. But she has cherished caring for that son, and their relationship has come to define the meaning of family.

That was part of the legacy of the Depression, an appreciation of family that was more expansive than it had previously been. Families dissolved and reconstituted themselves sometimes years later. Neighbors, aunts and uncles, even complete strangers, stepped in to provide food, shelter, and stability to those whose own homes had not withstood the ravages of the Depression. And when the children of that era became parents themselves, they knew, having seen their own families scattered by want, not to take togetherness for granted.

But as the Teis children would be the first to admit, it was often the small acts of kindness that made all the difference in their lives. The children had a dog named Jack, a police dog that wasn’t much to look at but was all they had in those terrible years as the family was dissolving from poverty and marital disputes. Back then, there sometimes wasn’t enough food to go around for the children, much less for a dog, so pets were left to wander the back alleys and streets to fend for themselves, foraging among the trash.

A neighbor didn’t like Jack showing up on her property and notified the dog catcher, who promptly responded with a visit to the Teis home.

He searched for the vagrant mutt, but at first could not find him. The Teis children were hiding him in the dark under the front porch. One daughter secured his hind legs, another his front paws. A brother muzzled him with his hand lest he bark and give the hiding place away. The dog catcher thought he heard something stirring under the porch and bent down for a closer look. In the shadows of the porch he saw the children desperately trying to silence their beloved Jack. The children knew they had been discovered and braced themselves to lose the last thing they had left. But what the dog catcher could see in the children’s eyes, even in those shadows, convinced him not to do his duty and he pretended he hadn’t seen them. When he drove off down the street the children celebrated.

Sometime later, when the family collapsed and was parceled off among many different families across the city, Jack somehow disappeared, not to be seen again. It would have been a crushing blow for the young ones, but in their new homes awaited other dogs, and to them they gave the love they’d lost.

The Milk of Human Kindness

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Sam Stone was a silent and minor hero against the vast backdrop of the Great Depression, but he was hardly alone. Among those who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot was Lloyd B. McLain, an out-of-work executive with Ervin Manufacturing, an upholstery company. For five months in 1930 he and his wife, Florence, had taken in a family of five, providing them food and shelter. “Our happiness was greater for it,” McLain wrote on stationery that listed him as the company’s secretary-treasurer. Every street in Canton—and across the land—had families who put themselves at financial risk for others and who asked for little or nothing in return.

In the absence of cash, a barter system evolved. Goods and services of all kinds were freely exchanged without a dollar changing hands. Shopkeepers, physicians, butchers, bakers, plumbers, shoe repairmen, all traded their talents and goods. And it wasn’t only the merchants who came to accept the bartering of goods and services. One of those who wrote to B. Virdot was fifty-three-year-old Clifford P. Boylan, a landscaper and grading contractor who was falling behind in his mortgage payments. In lieu of interest payments, the bank allowed him to spend the summer working on improving its property. Otherwise, wrote Boylan, “I would have lost everything.”

Across Canton—across the country—this ad hoc system was built upon mutual trust and mutual need. (Leading economists of that era even proposed a federal barter scheme, so paralyzed were businesses and banks.) But it was the informal system that evolved, bonding neighbor to neighbor, and creating personal loyalties that long outlasted the Depression. Such a system helped form the dense core of community that became a hallmark of the Hard Times.

By extending credit, indebtedness of another kind was created. Earl J. Billings, a forty-seven-year-old unemployed plasterer, wrote: “If it was not for my grocery man J. E. Grove to carry me, would be on charity now as I can’t make ends meet. There is six in my family and that means something.” The grocer, James Groves, was sixty and lived above the store along with his wife, Mary, three children, and a grandchild. His grocery on Eleventh Street Southwest was but a few doors away from the home of Earl Billings. Many of the letters to B. Virdot are oblique tributes to such individuals:

DEC. 18, 1933 

MR. B. VIRDOT:

Dear Sir:

After reading your article in the paper tonight, it seems too good to be true. Many a day in the last year we thought we must ask for charity but we managed to get by.

Mr. Beggs is a salesman and has been for seven years and we always made a good living until a year ago. We were buying our home in the N.W. end on Frazier Ave., but lost that. Then a year ago in September we lost a baby boy and I was sick nearly the whole winter which meant doctor bills. In April of this year our little girl 2 years old had to have a mastoid operation. Dr. Underwood was just grand and said he would operate and would wait on his money and we have been unable to pay him a cent yet. We do have a large Dr. bill at Dr. Maxwell, a hospital bill, grocery at Mr. Brown’s on Navarre rd. The last two I have been paying a dollar on whenever possible. Also owe $16 at Jacobs funeral home yet. The Superior Dairy was just wonderful and let us have milk for seven months without paying anything. We have been able to pay our monthly milk bill for the last six months but are unable to pay any of the back bill. We live in a Timken house and they have left us in a year without paying rent which we were surely thankful for but the first of September we either had to pay or move so we have managed to pay the last three months and sure do hope we are able to some day pay back the $260 we owe them. We have four children, three boys and a girl and it sure takes some managing to provide for them.

My husband is selling sweepers and he surely works hard and what he does make it is mostly on repair jobs.

It surely looked like we would have to disappoint our children on Christmas for we didn’t know where the money was coming from to buy them something. They wrote their letters to Santa Claus and it looks like he may be real and I am so sorry to burden someone else with our troubles.

We want to thank you for helping all these people and if we are not included in the 75 we will only be glad you are helping someone else. Sincerely Yours,

MR. & MRS. R. M. BEGGS 

1390 ROSLYN AVE. S.W.

The letter was written by Ora Beggs. She and her husband, Raymond, like everyone they knew, were struggling. The letter refers to a home on Frazer Avenue that they had hoped to buy, but after years of making payments on the property they simply had no more money and were forced to let it go—with a mere nine hundred dollars remaining before it would have been theirs. Raymond Beggs continued to struggle as a Hoover sweeper salesman, going door-to-door at a time when no one was buying and even repairs were out of reach for many.

Not long after the Beggses wrote to Mr. B. Virdot they decided to call it quits in Canton and moved out to the country, to Middle Branch. There they had no indoor plumbing. In winter the water pump froze and would function only after they poured a teakettle of boiling water into it to free it up; son Don, now eighty-one, remembers that he had to grow up fast. At seven, he and his older brother Dale took a job with the farmer across the street and put in a full day picking corn, gathering potatoes, milking cows. For twelve hours’ work he was paid one dollar. It went to helping the family make do. When the farm chores were done, he delivered newspapers—the Canton Repository—for a penny a copy. He sometimes supplemented the route by selling skinned and cleaned rabbits and big Red Rock chickens he’d raised and killed and cleaned and wrapped in wax paper. He carried them in the basket of his bike, along with the day’s newspapers, delivering them to the few who could afford a whole chicken or a rabbit.

Like many of those who appealed to B. Virdot, the Beggses’ letter is replete with mention of merchants who carried them or accepted meager monthly payments of a dollar or less. Around the city, doctors delivered thousands of babies with little or no prospect of payment. Just as many caskets and funerals were provided with the thinnest hopes of being repaid. The Beggses’ letter refers to the Jacobs Funeral Home. “It was a little brother of mine,” says son Don Beggs. “He had a name but I haven’t thought of it for so many years, I can’t remember his name.” The death certificate shows it was “Jerry G. Beggs.” He was born on September 11, 1932, and died the next day. The death certificate lists the cause of death as “premature—8 mo.”

In countless cases, those in business risked all to help those who could not help themselves. Desperation spawned creativity. Once the Beggses had moved out of the city to Middle Branch, their milk was delivered by Firestone Dairy. But once again the Beggses fell behind in their payments. Don Beggs remembers: “The bill got up to twelve dollars and my mother’s father had an old Model T sitting in a barn in Marlborough Township and it would barely run but we went up and got it running—you had to crank it—and drove it down and put it in front of the house, and the next morning ‘Cap’ Firestone, who owned Firestone Dairy—he was delivering milk—he saw the old Model T and said, ‘What do you want for that?’ Mother and Dad heard him say it. They said, ‘We want twelve dollars so we can pay you.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll just take the car and the bill’s paid,’ and that’s what they did.”

But earlier, while they were still in Canton, the milk had been delivered by Superior Dairy. The letter mentions both their indebtedness and their gratitude to the company. It deserved special mention because nothing was more indispensable to a growing family than milk. Superior Dairy extended credit to many such families, and in so doing reserved for itself an esteemed place in the hearts of many of Canton’s neediest.

The founder and owner of Superior Dairy was Joseph Soehnlen. An immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine, he had come to America at age eighteen and with his brother founded a wine and brandy import business that flourished until Prohibition, when revenue agents uncorked his casks of brandy. Decades later he told a grandson that watching his brandy being poured out was like watching his life go down the drain. In 1922, he lost his wife, Anna, to tuberculosis and was left with five children. Unable to support them, he farmed them out to relatives across the region. That same year, he bought a dairy route from a farmer, some empty bottles and brushes to clean them out with, a horse, and a milk wagon. Over the years his children returned to him and his business prospered. But even in the depths of the Depression, when longtime customers could not pay their debts, he did not lose faith in them.

His grandson Joseph remembers his grandfather telling him that during the Depression many families couldn’t pay for their milk, but he would not allow the deliveries to be interrupted. A family needed its milk. But families like the Beggses eventually made good on their debts. In the 1950s, Joseph Soehnlen received a payment for several weeks’ milk delivery that had been in arrears since the Depression—a debt long since forgotten and forgiven.

Call it solicitude or faith or simply shrewd business, Superior Dairy later reaped the benefits of its largesse in unexpected ways. In March 2005, it was struck with a devastating fire that destroyed its original building. Some twenty-nine firefighting units responded, retirees came forward offering help, the company received a tax break to rebuild, and a competitor, Smith Dairy, even stepped forward and provided milk under the Superior name to protect the company’s customer base while it rebuilt itself. True to its character, though the company struggled in the aftermath of the blaze, it let none of its employees go.

Today the company is run by the grandsons of Joseph Soehnlen, serves eleven states, and employs more than 250 people. Its innovative ways have been written up in the New York Times. And in these difficult times it continues to help soup kitchens and other organizations providing for the needy. “What we do we do very, very quietly and we seek out people who need it most,” says Soehnlen’s grandson Dan, Superior’s president.

“Too Big-Hearted”

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Many of those who wrote to B. Virdot, though barely able to pay their own bills, had routinely extended credit to desperate neighbors. My grandfather had been both a lender and a creditor during the hard years. Were it not for several large clothing suppliers extending him credit in the depths of the Depression, his business wouldn’t have survived. They carried him well beyond what prudent business practices might have dictated, but it was predicated upon a belief in his character. That was often all a person had left. If there was an aversion to charity, there was also a predisposition to leniency in collecting what was owed. Such compassion helped the neediest survive, and in better times sometimes laid the foundation for financial recovery for the business. Sometimes, but not always. There were also times when such shows of compassion pushed the benefactors over the precipice themselves. Charles Winters knew about this.

CANTON OHIO 

DEC. 19TH 1933 

MR. B. VIRDOT:-

Dear Sir:-

I am writing you in regards to your piece you had in the Evening Paper that you were willing to help any Canton Families that were in need, and I feel as I am one of them and when you read this letter I think you will agree with me. I am a disabled American World War veteran; and I have a family of 5 to support but find it is very hard to do with the small income I have; let alone giving my children a Christmas which they are looking forward for. But they will be very much disappointed this Christmas unless the good lord gives me a way to give them a little something for Christmas if it is only a Dinner. Two years ago I was in business of my own. I had a grocery store at the corner of 7th st. and Correll Ave. N.E. But during this Depression I had to close the doors because I was too big hearted and could not tell my Trade No, and keep on carring [carrying] them on the books with the expectations that it would soon end and I would get my money back. But instead I went farther in debt and finely had to close my doors and then move. And I have not worked for one year until the C.W.A. put me to work three weeks ago at $15.00 a week of which I take $10.00 and pay on my bills I made while I was in the Grocery. For I don’t want to see anyone go through what I have in the last 2 years. And with the good lord’s help and my good health, I will struggle to get them paid weather my children have Christmas or not. Last July I spent in Aultman Hospital and several times I thought I would have to break up my family but with God’s help and my struggling I have held them together.

After reading this letter if you think I need your help it will be very much appreciated; And I thank you very much for helping me give my children a Happie Christmas.

I AM AS EVER YOURS, 

MR. CHARLES. A, WINTERS 

1016 6TH ST. N.E. 

CANTON 

OHIO.

That Charles Winters could not say no to his neighbors in need is no surprise to his surviving grandchildren, who remember him as a man of meager means but a bountiful heart. Sandra Jordan considered herself one of his favorite grandchildren. “I walked to his house every Sunday after church and he always gave me a silver dollar,” she recalls. “I still have them to this day. I would never spend those.”

Charles Winters couldn’t help but identify with those in need. His father, Amos, was a cobbler who, according to the 1900 U.S. Census, at thirty-five could neither read nor write. But a decade later, he could proudly check “yes” to both reading and writing. Perhaps he had been tutored by his literate wife, Alice. Son Charles was born in July 1892 and married Florence Bair when he was twenty-two and she was twenty-one.

Florence wore braces on both legs, having been stricken with polio as a child. She limped, but there was nowhere she couldn’t reach. She was stern, not the softy that her husband was, and the children and grandchildren gravitated to Charles for affection. They muddled through each setback and difficulty, determined to keep the family together. In the midst of the Depression, Charles’s widowed father lived with the family, still working as a cobbler and taking in repairs until his death.

It could be said that Charles’s willingness to help others eventually cost him his life. He had a severe heart condition but insisted on pitching in to paint his son’s new home on Tyler Avenue. It was then, in 1959, that he was felled with a heart attack, from which he died soon after. “Grandpa had a big heart,” says his granddaughter Sandra.

Charles Winters and his descendants have never had it easy, but they didn’t expect it to be otherwise. Tragedy, illness, layoffs—and big hearts—run in the family. (One of Winters’s sons, Arthur, was killed in World War II.) Charles Winters’s son Charles Jr. had five children—four biological, one adopted. But he could never afford a car—he walked or took the bus everywhere. He was often furloughed from his job, even when it seemed the rest of the country prospered. He worked at Canton Drop Forge, grinding steel for a living. He never fully recovered from an industrial accident there that shattered his leg.

His daughter Sandra, now sixty-seven, manages a convenience store and filling station, and is saving money to visit her son in Dallas. “My husband worked at a steel mill and got laid off quite often,” she says. “I just learned to live frugal. Most of my kids are the same way. They have learned when there are hard times you got to be careful.”

Like many children whose parents grew up during the Depression, sisters Sandra and Carol inherited a scaled-down map of life. Christmas in the Winters home was special, never because of the volume of presents but because it was time shared. “What we got was enough for us,” says Carol.

Enough was a byword of the Depression. It was less a measure of what one had than what one was made of. It was about conservation, not consumption. Enough was a word around which an entire family could rally, a gesture of faith but also of defiance. It was to count one’s blessings aloud, to shore up the soul, and to hold despair at bay.

“We had a good life, whether my dad was out of work or not,” remembers Carol. “We are happy. We have each other. We love each other. We survive, we survive.”

It was and is enough.

Shipmates

061

Sam learned many lessons in the first years of the Depression when he saw his business wither, his debts deepen, and his way of life imperiled. None was more important than the realization that the town’s survival and return to prosperity was tied to the well-being of the entire community. The old clannish alignments by class, ethnic group, and national origin would no longer suffice. No one, not the Timkens, the Hoovers, or the Beldens, was immune to the poverty and despair engulfing the city. Like rising waters, it threatened to wash away one and all. The storefronts would remain vacant, the mills and plants nearly deserted, the town an economic wasteland, as long as so many were down-and-out. There was a new imperative emerging and it was based on community. B. Virdot’s gift, while voluntary, recognized that something was both expected of every citizen and due every citizen. Before the Depression drew to a close, the generation that came of age in the Hard Times would soon be called upon to make extraordinary sacrifices, but they had already come to appreciate both the importance of individual courage and the indispensability of common purpose.

Such values were a part of everyday life in the home of Nora Romesberg. Her letter to B. Virdot:

Dear Sir, a kind neighbor showed me this article in the paper and I believe in prayers being answered.

My husband has been out of work, he even applied on the CWA thinking he could get a pay check before Christmas but it is of no avail. My children are like any other children but instead of toys they need clothing.

If you doubt this statement come down and investigate because if you see our living conditions you will certainly understand. . . . Sorry to say but I do not know where my next month’s rent is coming from. If you don’t help us in this way maybe you could aid in getting my husband some kind of employment.

SIGNED 

MRS. NORA ROMESBERG

Nora Romesberg lived to be ninety-four. Her son Clyde, now eighty-eight, was thirteen that Christmas of 1933. Always when he returned home from school he took off his shoes to conserve the soles. The boys slept on the floor—there were no beds or mattresses, just blankets. At night before the kerosene lamp was doused, their mother and father would take turns reading to them from the Bible. Clyde remembers being embarrassed by the bright patterns in the shirts he wore to school, cut from his mother’s worn-out dresses. He remembers that his birthday was an occasion for joking, not presents. But as part of his job for Western Union, he would bicycle to the city’s outskirts, a telegram in his hat, and sing “Happy Birthday” to wealthier citizens. Dressed in a snappy uniform, he also worked as an usher, taking patrons down the aisles of the fabulous Palace Theater.

He remembers too how neighbors pulled together to get through those times. The homes were heated by coal, but there was seldom enough money to buy it. So the neighborhood boys would go down to where the B&O Railroad ran and search along the tracks for coal that had fallen off passing trains. They carried burlap sacks and divided among themselves what they could scavenge. “We all worked together,” recalled Romesberg. “You had certain obligations.” A policeman was stationed at the rail yard to ensure that no one took coal off the open cars, though he often pitied the boys and, with his arm, appeared to “accidentally” bump a few extra lumps of coal onto the tracks. They quickly disappeared into the closest burlap sack.

For Clyde Romesberg and his family, the desperate search for coal to keep warm carried with it a personal irony. Clyde Romesberg’s father was an out-of-work coal miner.

The hardship Clyde Romesberg experienced and the fellowship that was borne of sharing those hardships with so many others defined him as a man and prepared him to endure with quiet dignity even the worst travails of World War II. During his two and a half years in the navy, Romesberg served on an aircraft carrier, the USS Santee. At 7:40 A.M. on October 25, 1944, a Japanese suicide bomber carrying a 63-kilogram bomb hit the Santee’s flight deck. Romesberg took shrapnel to the head and hand. Blood poured from his wounds. Sixteen minutes later, a torpedo fired from a Japanese sub struck the ship, flooded compartments, and caused it to list 6 degrees. Flames erupted and crew members were burned clear down to the bone. Romesberg, the shrapnel still in his forehead, found himself applying ointment to other men’s burns and dressing their wounds. They were worse off and needed tending, and only by acting together could the ship be righted and the crew saved.

Today Romesberg is said to be a part of the Greatest Generation, but it is a generation whose cohesiveness and grit took shape during the Great Depression. Romesberg saw his actions aboard the Santee not as heroism but as an extension of the lessons he learned along the railroad tracks. “There was a different feeling then,” he says. “You felt united. You endured the same thing.” He is a humble man, but unable to resist an observation about the present. “We were made of better stuff,” he says.

Doctors

062

Whatever could befall a soul in good times—illness, loss of loved ones, disabling injuries—did so in bad times as well. No one understood that better than Florence Cunningham, unless perhaps it was the doctor who tended to her family. On December 19, 1933, she took out half of a sheet of lined paper and a pencil and wrote to B. Virdot:

I am righting in regards to the piece in the Repository about helping some unfortunate people. I am a widow with 5 small children. My husband has been dead a year last Aug. He had no work for two years before that and I was left pennyless no insurance. I am not able to work myself. For the last 8 weeks have had sickness. The children have had chicken pox. The one child had pneumonia. 3 boys yellow jaundice and now 2 are down with the gripp. Dr. Werley has taken care of them. And so far I have not had any income for a year and it surly is heart breaking to have children whom is use to having a nice Xmas and to no that so far There is no signs of any here this Xmas. The Family Services gives us grocers and coal and god no’s I am glad for that but the help you offer would be a god send to us or any one in my condiction.

You can investicate as far as you’d like. My husband was a painter contractor and we saw better days but I have had to sell most everything I had for help.

MRS. JOS. CUNNINGHAM 

CITY, 1030 CHERRY AVE, N.E.

At the time Florence Cunningham wrote her note she was thirty-eight. Her husband, Joseph, who had helped paint the interior of the Palace Theater, was forty-seven when, on August 29, 1932, he succumbed to kidney failure. Now widowed, Florence was left with daughters Margaret, eleven, and Virginia, five; and sons Joseph, ten, Willard, eight, and Robert, three.

To her aid came Dr. Lloyd H. Werley, a Canton physician and surgeon who, like many of his peers, ministered to the poor knowing payment was unlikely. Amid such emotional and financial desolation, Florence Cunningham and her children looked to Dr. Werley for more than just medical care. He and his kind provided sorely needed evidence that someone cared about them.

063

OTHER PHYSICIANS TOO donated their time to the needy. In the early years of the Depression, the Stark County Dental Society repeatedly hosted clinics to treat the poor in Canton’s municipal auditorium. Several times a year, dentists walked away from their private practices and devoted afternoons to seeing those unable to pay for such visits. In 1932, physicians saw some twenty-three thousand patients at a Canton city clinic—seven thousand more than the year before.

During those toughest of days in 1933, thousands of surgeries were performed across Canton without any prospect of payment—and there was no Medicaid reimbursement. There were many such unheralded heroes, and their names crop up in letter after letter. Among these was Dr. Guy B. Maxwell. He died three years later. Other physicians too were appreciatively mentioned in the B. Virdot letters for tending to those who had no means of paying for their services. Among these were Dr. John H. Underwood and Dr. Zadock Atwell.

Deep into the Depression, Dr. Atwell was overcome by debt, and he and his wife sought to collect from those whom he had treated without payment. Atwell’s wife, May, called upon the homes of those whose babies he had delivered for free. But the families had nothing to pay her with, and Atwell ultimately lost his own home. It was a crushing blow. In 1933, at the time the letters cited his kindness, he was sixty-seven.

064

BUT FOR THE small acts of kindness by ordinary citizens, whether the dogcatcher, the dairyman, or the doctor, the Depression might well have been insufferable. Every family that endured the Hard Times had a memory of someone who took a chance on them, carried them on credit, or looked past their tattered coats and overalls and treated them as they would have wished to be treated. That was the message B. Virdot sought to send that Christmas, that even those most down on their luck were part of the community and that the well-being of one was of concern to all. It was the message Clyde Romesberg carried with him from the Depression—the fate of his embattled ship rested in the hands of the entire crew.

For Sam Stone, unlikely Santa that he was, the B. Virdot gift was, I believe, a reflection not merely of a Yuletide spirit but of what he had come to believe was part of the character of the nation that had taken him in. In the Old World, no one had been less wanted than the wandering Romanian Jews, but even they had found a home here. Reaching out to the dispossessed was a quintessentially American act, and though Sam never acknowledged that he was himself an immigrant, he often cited the country’s willingness to take in those of other lands. By extending a hand to the needy that Christmas, I believe he was both making a payment on an old debt and participating in a distinctly American rite—that of sharing the bounty of the new land with others.

His faith in America could only have been reaffirmed by the selflessness of the letters addressed to B. Virdot. Many came from those who had little themselves but sought help only for others—neighbors, friends, family. Frances Lindsay, whose husband, James, was a clerk for the Pennsylvania Railroad, hoped B. Virdot would help out their neighbors, the family of Willis and Minnie Evans, who for years had put away every spare penny in the bank only to lose it all when the bank failed. Evans was a carpenter who’d been out of work for three years. Her letter concluded, “folks like us have no reason to ask for help . . . but you can inquire anywhere here and you’ll find these folks ‘All Americans.’ ” So genuine was their concern for others that the Lindsays did not even include their own return address.

Mr. B. Virdot’s Story: A Second Gift, 1940

065

There was little Sam Stone wanted more than to be a part of his adopted country, but perhaps he did not always understand or appreciate what that required of him. America was a country of laws and processes. It offered a clear path to naturalization. But he had come from a place where the rights of citizenship could be conferred or withdrawn at the state’s whim. Generations could live on the same plot of land, and, in the time it took to sign an edict, be reduced to trespassers and aliens. His early years had taught him to distrust the state. I can’t say with certainty what was in his mind when he chose to create that fictional autobiography. It was clearly unlawful, but it may have had some rationale rooted in the insecurities of his youth. If the state could take away so much with the stroke of a pen, why should he not be able to restore it with the stroke of his own pen?

In 1921, Sam Stone had persuaded suspicious government bureaucrats to issue him a passport. At the time, it seemed a triumph. The matter of his citizenship had been disposed of once and for all, he thought. After all, a passport is proof of citizenship—unless it’s obtained by fraud. For two decades the matter of his citizenship went unquestioned. Sam was living an exemplary American life, a good and loving father and husband, a veteran, a solid provider to his family—immediate and extended—a highly respected member of the community, a man of deep patriotic feeling.

But not even snug little Canton provided safe haven from the events unfolding a world away. In 1940 the specter of another cataclysmic war crept across the Old World. Sam had hoped he had left such horrors behind. Now those same forces threatened to unravel all that he had won—his position, his identity, his honor, and even his freedom.

In June of that the year the United States enacted the Alien Registration Act, or Smith Act, as it was known. Coming on the heels of the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, it criminalized calls for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. But it also required all those of foreign birth over fourteen years of age and residing in America for thirty days or more to register and be fingerprinted. Failure to comply meant prosecution, fines, and up to six months in prison. Those who were found to make false statements on the forms and had been in the country for five years or less faced deportation. The provisions sent a chill through the immigrant community. Within four months of its passage, 4.7 million aliens had registered.

But Sam Stone was not among them. He had let the four-month window come and go, undoubtedly tormented by the dilemma he now faced. It was a situation entirely of his own making. If he continued to ignore the registration requirements and cling to the fallacy of his Pittsburgh birth, he risked being found out, prosecuted, and jailed. But if he came forward and admitted that all the affidavits, birth records, and passports were the products of his own deception, he would have to face possible legal consequences as well as public humiliation.

Either way, the stakes were enormous. How would he explain himself to his three young daughters, to his wife, to the community? And just as weighty, after so many years, would he find himself reduced once again to Sam Finkelstein, the penurious Romanian refugee, the undesirable? There was that word again—alien—the word that Romania used to strip the Jews of all rights and legitimacy. Now it was the U.S. government that used the word and threatened to take away all that he had.

It is not clear how much even his wife, Minna, knew. Given her legal acumen and ability to slice through deception, it is likely that she knew at least some elements of the truth. The protective way in which she responded to my questions decades later—her demand that I drop my inquiry—was further evidence that even if she did not know the particulars of Sam’s deception, she knew something was amiss about his past. Whatever she knew would have made her profoundly uncomfortable. She vigorously defended and supported Sam, but she was also a stickler for the truth. When I was five or six, I once told her a lie and was found out. She marched me into the bathroom and washed my mouth out with Ivory soap while lecturing me on the corrupting nature of lies.

And yet, from the correspondence that was discovered among her personal papers in 2009, it is clear that she played a role in counseling Sam and acted as a liaison between him and the lawyers he retained to help him decide a course of action. In 1940, after the four-month registration deadline had passed, Sam retained a Dayton, Ohio, attorney named Samuel Finn. He was a perfect choice—the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, and just far enough removed from Canton so as to not attract his neighbors’ attention or suspicion. In the succeeding months Finn would meet privately with the Immigration commissioner exploring Sam’s options, but without revealing

Sam’s identity. The commissioner told him a legitimate passport was itself proof of citizenship. The operative word was legitimate.

Apparently unaware of Sam’s innumerable deceptions, Finn attempted to track down the proof that Minna and Sam had provided him documenting Sam’s birth in Pittsburgh. The chief piece of evidence was an official-looking birth certificate, which had been signed April 25, 1921, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The record gives his name as “Sam Stone,” and says that he was born at 29 Gum Street in Pittsburgh on March 9, 1889. His parents are listed as Jacob and Hilda Stone, both born in Russia. It even lists the midwife who delivered him—“H. Sandusky.” Three weeks after his birth, on April 1, 1889, the record indicates that he left America with his parents and returned to Europe. At the bottom of the document appears the name of “J. H. Harkins, Clerk, Department of Public Health, who attests that the record is to be found in the Birth Register.” The record even included the exact site of the original document—volume 376, page 291.

But Pittsburgh authorities informed Sam’s lawyers that there was no such record of his birth on that page or any other page. There was indeed a famous Pittsburgh midwife named Hannah Sandusky, known variously as “Bobba Hannah” (Bobba is Yiddish for “Granny”), “the Angel,” and “the Saint.” The Lithuanian immigrant delivered more than thirty-five hundred babies in Pittsburgh, the last one in 1909 when she was eighty-two. But she had died in November 1913, eight years before Sam submitted the birth certificate. With her death and the absence of any public record, there was no support for the legitimacy of his certificate. Finn and his associates conducted a thorough search of Pittsburgh records and found nothing to bolster Sam’s claim. They apparently were unaware that they had been sent on a fool’s errand. Sam knew full well that his documents were fabricated.

Two decades earlier, in creating this fictional autobiography and the records to support it, he had allowed himself to act out of fear or impatience, or both. Whether he had been spooked by the hysteria of the Red Scare or duped himself into thinking that he could confer citizenship on himself with a drawer full of false documents, I will never know. What is clear is that the decisions he made that had once seemed expedient would later cause him untold anxiety. B. Virdot had been a role he could assume one week and discard the next. He defined that part; it did not define him. That was not so with the tangled autobiography he had created as a young man. What he had authored long ago would not release him from its grip. In middle age and later years it continued to threaten him, to put his public reputation, his stature in the family, and even his personal freedom at risk. By the 1940s, he recognized it for what it was: a Faustian bargain that could come due at a moment’s notice.

It appears that Minna and Sam had a heart-to-heart about what to do. Among Minna’s papers is the alien registration form, filled out in pencil. In it, Sam wrote that he was born in Pittsburgh, but added this revealing sentence: “My family and my personal recollections are these: my parents had emigrated in or about 1888 and during their residence here I was born but having no proof am registering in a desire to comply with the law in any eventuality.” But by then Sam had become hopelessly ensnared in his own scheme. He could not fall back on a faulty memory when he had personally fabricated a fraudulent birth certificate, complete with forged signatures, and then par-layed that into a series of passports and other sworn declarations that were patently false and contradictory. The registration form filled out in pencil was never submitted.

There was now no innocent explanation and no way to invoke confusion or faulty memory as a defense. The record was one of deliberate and calculated deception. At that late date, the web of lies would not admit good-faith error or parental miscommunication. In the end, he fell back on his old strategy: holding fast to the lie. And he got away with it, if you can call living decades in uncertainty and anxiety getting away with it.

Reading the correspondence between Minna and the attorneys, I finally understood why she had felt so threatened by my inquiries into Sam’s past, and was so insistent that I give her my word that I would not pursue it. It was not only Sam’s good name at stake but her own as well. Out of her desire to protect her husband, she had allowed herself to be compromised, to enter into a kind of conspiracy with him. Her entire life, Minna had been a model of probity and forthrightness. Taking up Sam’s cause must have pained her greatly. The prospect of having the truth discovered by her own grandson, an investigative reporter, the one in whom she had invested so much ethical energy and teaching, would have pained her greatly. The promise she extracted did not bar me for life from pursuing the truth, but only protected her for the duration of her life from having to answer to me.

066

AT THE SAME time that Sam fretted over the Alien Registration Act, a world away in Dorohoi, things were quickly unraveling for the remaining five thousand Jews. The Christians in town received warning that the Jews were to be targeted and were advised to put religious icons in their windows so that the mayhem would pass them by. The next day, July 1, 1940, as many as two hundred Jewish residents were murdered, their homes looted, their bodies picked over and left in the streets. The victims’ families were forced to sign statements that the assailants had been unknown to them. The pogrom was only the first step in what would become a systematic effort to exterminate Dorohoi’s Jews. Such actions were being played out across the continent. Hitler was on the move. For Sam Stone, such news rekindled his worst childhood nightmares.

Sam and his siblings, indeed even many of their descendants, were so scarred by the experience of Romanian persecution and the accounts of Nazi horrors that they forever feared being sent back. Among them there was a sense that no matter how calm the surface, there always stirred, just beneath, the very real threat of a violent anti-Semitic eruption—even here in America. My grandfather said as much to me more than once. Call him paranoid or irrational, but history suggested otherwise. Against this wider canvas, the specter of persecution and the fear of prison or deportation, baseless or not, rose up inside him. The dread of being returned to that world against his will—or of it now reaching into the New World—was part of the Stone family’s emotional makeup. There weren’t enough miles to place them beyond such fears.

But rather than cower at the news, Sam chose to express his solidarity with those who were trying to stop Hitler and put an end to his maniacal anti-Semitism. In late May and early June hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers had been evacuated from the shores of Dunkirk, and London had become a target of German bombing. So on October 5, 1940, even as he was mired in his own citizenship issues, Sam Stone wrote a letter to the British ambassador to the United States, Lord Lothian:

Honorable Sir:-

The punishment and torture inflicted on the London civilians seems incredible for human beings to endure, and yet these civilians endure them with a courage that compels admiration for everyone that still values freedom.

Impelled by such admiration plus the realization that your struggle today is a barrier to our struggle tomorrow, it is my desire that in addition to a cash contribution (see enclosed copy of letter) to forward direct to London civilians fifty new overcoats, and I will greatly appreciate your informing me of the proper agencies to whom these garments can be forwarded so that they can be distributed to London civilians,

I pray for your worthy cause. . . .

That week, Sam Stone anonymously paid for an Allied Relief Fund ad to appear in the October 13, 1940, Canton Repository, which produced additional contributions. And though the British Embassy in Washington knew his identity—a concession he made to the necessity of arranging the shipment of wool coats—no one else did. Once again, the Canton Repository wrote an article about this anonymous donor, under the headline, A GESTURE OF FREEDOM—DEMOCRACY LOVING CANTONIAN SENDS 50 COATS TO ENGLAND.

Into a pocket of each of the coats bound for London, Sam Stone placed a typed letter. It read:

CANTON, OHIO, U.S.A. 

DECEMBER 26, 1940

To a Briton:-

This gift comes to you from one who is fortunate to live in a country where faith in democracy—in decency and dignity of men can still be reaffirmed.

Please accept it not in a spirit of appreciation, but as a humble thanksgiving for your heroic efforts, so the enslavement, the political and social regimentation would not be extended throughout the continent of Europe and possibly the world.

Here in the United States we realize that our heritage of Democracy and freedom is at stake, and greatly depends upon the outcome of the battle across the sea, impelled by such realization, Americans who believe in the things which make life worth living for free men, have banded together in a great cause of

“AID TO BRITAIN”.

. . . I hope that you continue your spirit, high and strong, and with firm belief in “THAT WHICH IS RIGHT WILL SURVIVE, THAT WHICH IS WRONG WILL PERISH”, I will close with unshaken faith in the British, who have risen as by a single impulse—to Defend.

YOURS FOR VICTORY, I AM

Sam was an able wordsmith, especially considering his limited formal education, and he often spoke in dramatic tones about the virtues of democracy. But the eloquence of this letter, with its rhetorical flourishes, was likely also the work of my grandmother Minna, who was widely read and had a formidable vocabulary. Most likely, they authored the letter together, Sam providing the passion, and Minna, the oratorical high notes. From Sam’s point of view, the British were all that stood between the darkness he had grown up with and the America he had grown to love.

But Sam Stone’s concern for the British was not unique. By the end of 1940, the English War Relief Society reported that some twenty-five thousand coats were ready to be shipped from America to England, many of them coming from this nation’s clothiers and manufacturers. And among those who pitched in to aid the Brits were Sam’s daughters, Virginia and Dorothy, then twelve and ten. They are pictured in the Canton Repository among twenty-five girls “bending earnestly over knitting needles, working white, navy blue and olive green colored yarns into sea boots, scarfs, sweaters, wristlets and caps and mufflers,” all of which were to go to the British War Relief Society.

It was not only the individuals of Canton who reached out to the vulnerable but businesses as well. The Hoover Company arranged for eighty-four British children of its employees in England and Scotland to live with Hoover Company families and others in Canton for the duration of the war. Around town that Christmas Eve, in keeping with their homeland’s customs, the children hung pillowcases from the bedposts (instead of stockings) in expectation of Santa’s arrival.

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