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The Great Depression was especially cruel in the industrial town of Canton, Ohio, where nearly 50 percent of workers were jobless during the holiday season of 1933.
Amid the despair, businessman Sam Stone who had known hard times of his own devised a secret way to help suffering townspeople.
Stone's gift came to light three years ago, and its influence continues to grow. The book A Secret Gift by Stone's grandson Ted Gup tells a compelling story that has prompted other anonymous gifts.
The story inspired Utah composer Phillip Bimstein to write a song cycle on the theme of giving. Bimstein's contemporary folk ensemble, Red Rock Rondo, will perform a newly orchestrated version of "A Secret Gift" with the Salt Lake Symphony and West Jordan High School Choir.
The story came to light because of an old suitcase given to Gup by his mother, Virginia Gup Sharpe. In it, Gup found a packet of letters addressed to a B. Virdot in 1933 and a newspaper advertisement offering to send checks to those who wrote and told of the difficulties they faced in that dreary year.
A bank book and copies of 150 checks for $5 in the handwriting of Stone and his wife, Minna, confirmed that Sam Stone was the benefactor.
The letters painted a collage of misery that no textbook description of the Depression can match: tradespeople forced to sell their tools, widows with sick children and no money, families about to be evicted, children with no hope of Christmas presents or a good meal.
Most letter writers were reluctant to ask for handouts. They needed money to pay off doctor bills, buy shoes for children and put food on their tables, but above all, they wanted work.
In 1933, the $5 gifts went a long way, putting presents under trees and dinners on tables. Most of all, the gifts gave people hope that someone cared about their troubles.
During the holidays in 2008, Bimstein read about the letters in a New York Times op-ed piece Gup wrote. He was drawn to the heart of the story, recognizing similarities in the economic woes of 1933 and contemporary times. "In these letters, that was coming out to me," he said. "I could hear them singing off the page."
Using the letters as a springboard, Bimstein composed a cycle of songs for Red Rock Rondo, a folk sextet best known for Bimstein's previous work, "Zion Canyon Song Cycle."
Some of the songs, such as "Dear Sir," are taken directly from the letters. It's based on a letter by 14-year-old Helen Palm, whose father was out of work and unable to provide clothing for the family. Bimstein's final song, "Give," doesn't come from the letters, but instead sums up their essence.
Last November, Red Rock Rondo performed some of the songs in Canton at a gathering of descendants of the gift recipients. "They spoke with such respect for how the gift had affected their father, grandfather, aunt or uncle," Bimstein said of the concertgoers. "It taught us all how important it is to give, and how even a small gift can be very impactful on a person's life."
Bimstein orchestrated a selection of the songs to be performed with the Salt Lake Symphony and West Jordan High School Choir (under the direction of Kelly DeHaan) this week.
Salt Lake Symphony music director Robert Baldwin said the songs take listeners on a journey through people's stories. "My whole idea of asking Phillip to do this was to look for a different, yet still meaningful, type of holiday program," Baldwin said. "The book sends a message about sharing, giving and being genuine with who you are."
The program's resonance transcends boundaries of religion, as Stone's gifts did. Stone was born in Romania to Jewish parents; he witnessed the horrors of pogroms and persecution before his family emigrated to the United States.
His childhood in a Pittsburgh tenement, where he worked rolling cigars instead of attending school, was little better. But somehow, a magnanimous spirit emerged. Stone made no distinctions in his gift-giving. Most of his checks brightened Gentile Christmases, while his story appeals to the best of all of us.
Stone's daughter Virginia Gup Sharpe, Ted Gup's mother, will attend this week's performance. She said she adored her father's zest for life, recalling that he could stand on his head longer than any of his grandchildren.
"I think that my father had great compassion," Sharpe said. "He had traveled that road himself, and because of that, he realized."
Sharpe explained that the curious pen name B. Virdot was an amalgamation of Stone's daughter's names Barbara, Virginia and Dorothy.
Sam Stone died many years ago, but B. Virdot lives on. Last December, an anonymous group of businessmen in Canton gave $100 to 150 needy families who answered a newspaper advertisement in his name, and similar offers have popped up elsewhere, some closer to home. Provo's Herald Journal ran an anonymous ad last December offering cash to help people in need. Letters were to be mailed to B. Virdot, in Orem.
The gift of song
The Salt Lake Symphony will premiere the song cycle "A Secret Gift" by Phillip Bimstein. Music director Robert Baldwin conducts the Salt Lake Symphony, contemporary folk ensemble Red Rock Rondo and the 160-voice West Jordan High School Choir.
When • Saturday, Dec. 17, at 7:30 p.m.
Where • Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1365 E. Presidents Circle, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $10, at 801-531-7501, or at the door
More • Red Rock Rondo will present a free preconcert lecture and perform additional songs inspired by the book at 6 p.m. in the concert hall. In keeping with the evening's theme, representatives from the Utah Food Bank will accept cash or check donations before and after the concert and at intermission.
About 'A Secret Gift' and Red Rock Rondo
Ted Gup's book A Secret Gift inspired Utah composer Phillip Bimstein's song cycle of the same name. Gup is a former Washington Post and Time magazine journalist. The book became a national best-seller after its 2010 release and has been translated into several languages.
The Emmy Award-winning chamber-folk ensemble Red Rock Rondo features acoustic musicians Kate MacLeod, Hal Cannon, Charlotte Bell, Flavia Cervino-Wood, Harold Carr and Bimstein. They perform on piano, guitars, violins, oboe, English horn, concertina, harmonica, bass and vocals, and their music combines folk, jazz and classical elements in a New Americana style.