The gifts that Sam Stone gave that Christmas 1933 came from a man who understood what it was to be down-and-out. But there was more to it than that. It was no accident that he chose Christmas, a holiday marked for Christians, not Jews, and that he specifically wished his Gentile neighbors a “merry and joyful Christmas.” For Sam, the gift marked a kind of final arrival for him. No longer the object of persecution, he was a respected citizen and a welcomed member of the community.
That nearly all the recipients of his largesse were Gentiles represented a measure of acceptance long denied him. Canton had embraced him in ways he had never thought possible. To the suffering of his fellow townspeople, the act had brought relief and hope. But to Sam, it signaled a personal triumph in which he could finally believe that he had escaped the persecution, rejection, and poverty that had defined his past. In Canton, a small midwestern industrial town against the ropes during the Great Depression, he found what had eluded him all his life—a sense of belonging, a home.
He had strayed as far as he could from the stifling orthodoxy of his youth, but he never severed his ties with Judaism. He was proud of his faith. He repudiated only the rituals that had weighed upon him and with which he associated so much suffering. At Christmas, in his Market Street home, he always had an enormous tree that he delighted in helping to decorate. On Christmas morning he insisted that he be allowed to open his gifts first. And yet, even as he celebrated his freedom from the past that Christmas of 1933, the manner of B. Virdot’s giving was an homage to that past.
Raised an Orthodox Jew, he knew well both the concept of tikkun olam and that of tzedakah. Tikkun olam is Hebrew for “repairing the world.” Tzedakah is a Hebrew word embedded in notions of basic justice, but also one that has come to mean caring for the poor. It is not charity but the debt we owe one another and ourselves as human beings. In the world into which Sam was born, it was customary for a new father to make a gift of money to the poor. It was a way of consecrating the newborn to a life of compassion, justice, and observance. “Tzedaka,” observed Professor Reuven Kimelman, “may not save us but it makes us worth saving.” And that was the power of B. Virdot’s gift. It telegraphed to an entire community that it—and he—were indeed worth saving.
The Bible speaks often of such matters:
“When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. . . . And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). Sam too had come out of a land of bondage. The exodus from Romania was, in its day, often compared to the exodus out of Egypt. And with him he had brought an ancient appreciation of the commandment of tzedakah.
He named his pseudonymous donor “B. Virdot” after his own young daughters, speaking to the hope that they would inherit a world free from the bigotry and Old World hatreds that had marked his childhood. Yet, ominously, the year he made his gift, 1933, was the same year Adolf Hitler came to power and Dachau opened its gates. Indeed, the day Sam Stone’s ad appeared in the Canton Repository, the New York Times reported how anti-Semitism was once more inflamed in Europe. A headline in the December 18, 1933, edition read: VIENNA NAZIS IN ATTACK: EXPLODE TEAR GAS BOMBS IN JEWISH-OWNED DEPARTMENT STORE. That same day, another Times headline read: NAZI COURT ANNULS MIXED MARRIAGE: SUSTAINS “ARYAN” HUSBAND ON THE GROUND THAT IT VIOLATES THE DOGMA OF BLOOD KINSHIP. It was a landmark case. In granting a husband a divorce from his Jewish wife on the ground that it tainted his Aryan blood, the court wrote in part: “He could not have understood the essential implication involved in such a union at a time when the significance of race, blood kinship and folkdom was recognized by a small minority only.”
These were the sorts of accounts that made Sam Stone shiver with boyhood fears. He knew firsthand where such stories inexorably lead. But his faith in America was not misplaced. The sons and daughters of those he’d helped, and millions like them, raised during the Great Depression, would soon march off to defeat Hitler and risk their lives to bring an end to the prejudices and tyranny that had defined his youth. Roy Teis’s sons enlisted the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Nora Romesberg’s son joined not long after. So too did the sons of Rachel DeHoff. And scores more enlisted from among the families B. Virdot aided. They had learned during the Great Depression that they were all in this together—rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Gentile—and that only by acting in concert could they prevail. B. Virdot had sent them five dollars. They repaid his faith in them ten-thousand-fold.
Epilogue: Canton Revisited
Over the thirty-five years since I last lived in Canton, I have returned many times. Almost always, it is for a funeral or to pay my respects at the graves of my family. Each time, I stand before Minna’s and Sam’s graves and gather up four pebbles. I place them on their gravestone—one for myself, one for my mother, Virginia, one for my sister, Audrey, and one for my wife, Peggy. It is how we Jews express remembrance. It is a way to continually build a monument to memory and it is a signal to those who come after us that we were there and that these souls have not been forgotten. Even the smallest pebble says it all.
Four generations of us are buried on a green hillside in West Lawn Cemetery, almost within the shadow of President William McKinley’s monument. Returning home—I still consider Canton my home, even after four decades away—I rarely miss a chance to eat at Bender’s or drive past Sam and Minna’s old home on Market Street. But with the discovery of the suitcase, I began to see things anew. And on each successive visit, researching this family or that, I sought out the landmarks that routinely cropped up in their letters—the places where they had lived and worked and, when they could, played, wondering what had become of them in the intervening seventy-five-plus years. It felt less like a self-guided tour than one directed by the ghosts of December 1933.
The Canton they knew is there still, but smaller. The industrial city of 105,000 has shrunk to 78,000, and the uncertainty of its financial future has done little to stem the exodus of its young. Those in whose hands the city now rests have done what they could to put a positive face on things, but the present increasingly looks like the troubled past. Today Canton must cope with the burdens that weigh on all Rust Belt cities: outsourcing, layoffs, plant closures, and a recession that for many bears an uncanny resemblance to the Hard Times.
In August 2008, Forbes magazine listed Canton among the ten fastest dying cities in the nation. In the Canton News Depot on Market Avenue, where decades earlier I had purchased the Harvard Classics, there were few books, but shelves of Dream Books—pamphlets used by those who play the illegal numbers racket and seek to convert their dreams into a winning combination of numerals. These Dream Books are one more sign of Canton’s hard-luck history, in which gambling and superstition seem as likely a course of salvation as any. Allen Bennafield, the dry-cleaner-turned-bookie, would have felt right at home.
Empty storefronts abound. At night, Bender’s still prospers, but much of the downtown is what one local banker calls “a dead zone.” Canton’s prostitutes never left, but they no longer claim entire streets. And if education is one of the paths out of difficulty, Canton has a ways to go. Only one in ten adults living there holds a bachelor’s degree.
Dollar stores, evangelical halls, bail bondsmen, vacant houses, and boarded-up storefronts proliferate. More than seventy-five years ago the Canton Repository ran B. Virdot’s offer and made its own appeal to help the needy. Now it is doing so again. In December 2008, the newspaper began a feature called “Community Help” that lists clothing giveaways, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters. As Christmas 2008 approached, more than three thousand people contacted the Salvation Army in search of shelter, food, and help with paying for heat and lights. Like those in 1933, the anguish and humiliation was written on their faces. In the lobby of the Salvation Army a part-time chef and father of six-year-old twin boys sat and wept, in part out of embarrassment, in part out of gratitude, as he waited to receive toys for his sons and food for his family.
Plants closed, factories cut back on hours, benefits were reduced or eliminated, and the growing uncertainty of continued employment took its toll. In March 2009, the posting of a single janitorial position at a junior high school drew 835 applicants. The one-year contract paid fifteen to sixteen dollars an hour. The Repository hailed the winner as possibly “the luckiest man in Stark County.” By early 2010, Canton’s unemployment rate was approaching 15 percent. The only thing that seemed to be expanding was the anger aimed at politicians of both parties at all levels of government.
One of the large downtown storefronts on McKinley Avenue is boldly called “The Recovery,” but it has nothing to do with the city regaining its economic standing, and everything to do with serving the growing number of addicts and alcoholics. The old McKinley High School still stands, but is now a nursing home. The first floor once hosted wedding receptions and parties and featured a restaurant. No longer.
Still, it is remarkable how, even today, so much of Canton’s landscape and life are defined by the Depression. Fawcett Stadium, where the National Football League kicks off its season each fall and where for generations high school teams have battled under the lights and families cheered, was itself a creation of the Depression and the Works Progress Administration. And much of Canton’s parks system owes its existence to the WPA.
Canton’s arts also took root during the Depression. The Canton Players’ Guild, a theatrical company, came into being in 1932, the Canton Art Institute in 1934, and the Canton Symphony Orchestra in 1936. Thirteen prized murals that glorify the steel industry and its workers inside Canton’s Frank T. Bow Federal Building were done by artist Glenn Moore Shaw under the Works Progress Administration.
But the Depression also scarred this city. At one time, no building was more precious to Canton than the home of President William McKinley. From the front porch of his house at 723 North Market Avenue, he launched his 1896 campaign for the White House. But eventually the house was moved to make room for the expansion of a hospital. During the Depression the home was neglected and became an eyesore. One attempt after another to solicit public and private funds for its restoration during the Hard Times failed. A grainy photo shows a sign in the window of the home that reads, SAVE THIS HOUSE. But there was no savior. Ultimately, the Health Department condemned it. In January 1935 the McKinley home rendered its last pitiful act of service to the city, providing jobs to a Federal Transient Service Bureau crew who tore the dilapidated house apart and hauled it away. The wood that was usable went to building shelters, picnic tables, and benches in the city parks.
Where the McKinley house originally stood, the Stark County Library now stands. It is where, day after day, I pored over old documents and directories, searching for what became of the descendants of those who wrote to B. Virdot.
Canton still has its Jewish community, but it too is smaller and older than the one Sam Stone knew. It was not anti-Semitism but assimilation, not poverty but opportunities elsewhere, that siphoned off the young. In June 2008, Canton’s Temple Israel agreed to be acquired by a Christian college, though Jewish services will continue to be hosted there. The Jewish country club, opened because Jews had been shunned by others, became a public golf course.
Canton remains a place of considerable diversity. The descendants of Germans, Italians, Irish, English, French, Greek, sub-Saharan Africans, Polish, and a dozen other nations have made it their home, just as Sam Stone did nearly a century ago. He would have drawn comfort to learn that, according to one survey, the most common place of birth for the foreign-born—11 percent—is Romania.
The house where Sam and Minna lived, 2129 Market Avenue Northwest, is now the home of Larry and Carol Williams. I knock on their door and introduce myself as the grandson of Sam Stone. His name means nothing to them. Carol Williams was born in 1942. But even now, she says, the Depression is a presence in the house and in her life. She knows that in the Hard Times her family had lived off the land and that her grandfather Clem Huth had gone off to work with little more than potato peels in his lunch box.
“My character has been formed and molded partly through the Great Depression, my lifestyle, how I choose to purchase things,” she says. “It does shape our character and the way we think. I can’t say it’s been a bad thing. My parents were able to teach me how to get by, how to manage money. It was one of the gifts they gave me. It was a gift in disguise, how to make the best of what you have. It was a terrible time and yet it was a good time, and I feel like we are maybe coming into that time again because we lost some of the understanding.”
I tell her she and Sam would have gotten along just fine. Later I return with my mother. We walk through the house as she narrates from memory. Little has changed. We have lemonade and fruit on the patio and say good-bye.
Beyond the door of that home, in what had once been the industrial strength of Canton, little is the same. The fortunes of the Hoover Company, whose products Raymond Beggs sold, had always been inextricably linked with those of Canton itself. By 1933, Canton produced more vacuum sweepers than any other city in the world and “Hoover” had become synonymous with “sweeper.”
For generations, the company’s sprawling plant in North Canton defined the landscape, economically and culturally. Some twenty-five hundred residents worked there. Today, Hoover is part of a Hong Kong-based firm, Techtronic Industries. In September 2007, the massive one-million-square-foot plant was closed. Today, the sweepers are assembled in Juarez, Mexico. The towering smokestack still carries the name Hoover in white bricks, and massive letters along the front of the building still proudly proclaim it to be THE HOME OF HOOVER APPLIANCES.
Timken, where Donald Jury and countless others had worked, has gone through its own wrenching changes. Seventy-seven years after B. Virdot’s gift, the company boasted sales of $5.7 billion and 25,000 employees, with 61 plants and 103 sales offices and warehouses across six continents. But in May 2004 it announced it was closing three plants in Canton. Together, they employed 1,300 people. In April 2009, the company announced that worldwide it was slashing its work force by 25 percent, eliminating 7,000 jobs. “Here we go again” was a phrase that came to the minds of many who had grown up in the Hard Times.
In 1933, no tour of Canton would have been complete without a visit to the Palace Theater and Meyers Lake Amusement Park, the two great escapes from the Great Depression. Today the theater enjoys a place in the National Register of Historic Places, but it is ailing. Once it was the most ornate edifice in the city. Even at ninety-six, Marjorie Markey, daughter of “Gray the Painter,” remembers the fabulous organ rising out of the pit, Banks Kennedy playing the keys. But today, at eighty-two, the theater’s plaster is falling, the tapestries are tattered, the furniture is broken, and the marquee has been allowed to go dark—deemed too expensive to feed its forty-eight hundred lights. An appeal to passersby for contributions to help with the utilities is posted on the door.
Meyers Lake Amusement Park, which hosted the dance marathon and was where Betty Gissiner and her beau would find relief and laughter, was itself not immune to the Depression. When business fell off, its owner, George Sinclair, secretly extended a plank across the moat to Monkey Island and let the monkeys escape, then breathlessly phoned in the story to the Canton Repository. “I don’t know how they got out,” he told the paper. The next day, attendance at the park soared as people came to watch monkey mayhem. Today, nothing remains of Meyers Lake Park except the lake for which it was named and the cottages and condos that sprang up around it.
But even today, B. Virdot’s gift enjoys a half-life in Canton. At Christmas 2008, following my discovery of the suitcase, the Repository ran an editorial citing Sam Stone (a.k.a. Mr. B. Virdot) and his generosity:
“Stone himself was not a wealthy man, but he had done well enough for his time. He also had experienced the loss of a business and had benefited from the help of others in getting back on his feet. And so, just before Christmas in 1933, Stone reached out to help others, with no wish for acclaim. Our own time is tough enough. There is no better role model than Samuel J. Stone.”
And as Sam Stone himself would have been the first to note, numbers themselves do not tell the whole story. Five dollars was so little and yet so much. Today’s unemployment numbers are real enough, but so too are the character and resilience of Canton’s people. Hard Times come and go, but even in these difficult days they are showing the same grit, compassion, and resourcefulness that have always defined the city and held out the prospect of better days ahead.