About two weeks ago, a secret angel appeared at the Kmart in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to spread anonymous cheer. The request was an unusual one: to secretly pay off the outstanding layaway amounts Kmart customers for Christmas. As the details of the gift were worked out with puzzled store clerks, the donor asked only that the recipients “pay it forward,” spreading cheer to another person in need, during the holidays.
The wonderful gesture was soon reported in the Detroit Free Press and on local and national news broadcasts. Such a clear and lovely and supremely manageable bit of philanthropy became immediately popular, and by recent accounts, Kmart layaway angels appeared in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, South Carolina, Iowa, Wisconsin, and California. The trend is sure to continue as we approach Christmas.
As I relished hearing this story on the news, I was transported back to a story that I heard about last year, as told in A Secret Gift, a book by Ted Gup. The book and its author were featured in a beautiful piece on the CBS Sunday Morning Program, where Mr. Gup, a journalist and college professor, explained a story from his own family archives….one that resembled today’s Kmart bandits of charity.
Mr. Gup’s odyssey started when he came upon a suitcase of letters and papers in his aging mother’s attic storage area. An investigative journalist at heart, Gup perused the family papers to come upon a wonderful story of gift giving that had been unbeknownst to him….the anonymous Christmas gifts made by his grandfather more than seven decades ago.
Mr. Gup lovingly writes about his own grandfather, Sam Stone, an immigrant businessman living in Canton, Ohio. Stone had a personally compelling story of personal difficulty and neglect, became a successful businessman in America, with a great empathy for strangers in need. In a gesture of uncommon generosity, Mr. Stone placed an advertisement in the local paper inviting individuals to write letters explaining their personal circumstances and wishes for the holiday. The stories, as detailed in the vintage letters, told of the overwhelming hardships of the Great Depression and the simple desire of “common people” to provide joy and cheer to their family members during the holidays. Stone asked that letters be sent to B. Virdot, a moniker constructed with the names of his three daughters: Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy, a strategy that maintained his anonymity for all time.
The letters that Gup perused not only provided a priceless snipit of American Social History, but it was an invitation to revisit his family’s history to return to Canton, Ohio. Through this labor of love, Gup was able to connect with the descendants—and in a few cases—direct beneficiaries of hif Grandfather’s generosity. The CBS piece ends with Gup addressing the Canton residents at local, classic theatre where he told this touching story, drawing together members of the community unknowingly connected by Mr. Stone.
When I witnessed the piece, I cried of course (as I always do), and dashed off to Amazon.com to purchase the book. It is ironic that Mr. Stone, who was Jewish, brought so much joy to people celebrating a Christian holiday. Yet he honored the religious injunction to give freely, without the need for accolades or attention. I am thrilled to see that these charitable impulses remain in us, even during the days of economic and political strife. And, isn’t it wonderful through stories, be they book like A Secret Gift, internet postings, or pieces oon the local news, that sometimes we only need to be reminded of our capacity for simple gifts to unknown others.
As I peruse my copy of A Secret Gift, I cherish Mr. Gups inscription: For my mother, Virginia; her sister Dorothy; and in Memory of Minna and Sam; And the Good People of Canton, to whom so much is owed. I add my own thanks to Mr. Gup….and all of those silent angels who are providing a richly personal, but anonymous gift, this holiday season.