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Gup’s book touches Ohio town

Journalism Professor Ted Gup’s book A Secret Gift is a touching true story of how his grandfather acted as a Secret Santa for Gup’s hometown of Canton, Ohio, during the Great Depression in 1933.

Eighty years later, and three years after the book’s release, the town is demonstrating that it hasn’t forgotten about Gup’s grandfather’s enormous generosity.

“This story is owned by the community,” said Gup, a longtime author and journalist, who is a former staff reporter for Time magazine and the Washington Post. “I wrote this story, but I don’t own it.”

This month, the story of how Gup’s grandfather, Sam Stone, helped 75 families for Christmas is being honored, re-created, exhibited, and much more, beginning with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, which dedicated its entire sold–out holiday pops show December 3 to re-creating scenes from A Secret Gift. Gup served as narrator on stage.

Gup, Canton Symphony

Journalism Professor Ted Gup, second from right, with members of the Canton (Ohio) Symphony Orchestra in December 2013. From left, Britt Cooper, choir director; Michelle Mullaly, director; Eric Benjamin, composer; Gup; and Rachel L. Waddell, conductor. (Courtesy Photo)

“I’m totally cool with lectures, but this was another world,” said Gup. “I was completely out of my comfort zone. But I thought it was great. I loved it.”

Schools, government officials, and businesspeople in Canton, as well as the McKinley Presidential Library and Museum, have all used the month of December to honor Stone, who placed an ad in the local newspaper offering $10 with no strings attached to 75 families in need who submitted letters to him. Stone signed the ad using a pseudonym, “Mr. B. Virdot,” which was a combination of the first names of his three daughters, Barbara, Virginia, and Dorothy. Virginia is Gup’s mother, who is now 85 years old.

“I think one of the reasons they embraced this book is [because], at its core, the story is about how much difference one individual can make,” Gup said, “and it shows what the meaning of community is.”

Gup said the outpouring of support has been used as a lesson for his Emerson journalism students.

“I want them to know something about the fact that we don’t write for ourselves,” he said. “We write for others. There is a connectedness between the journalist and the communities we serve.”

In 2010, CBS Sunday Morning profiled A Secret Gift and interviewed the only living person who wrote one of the 75 selected letters. As a 14-year-old, the woman wrote it because her financially struggling father would have been too embarrassed.

When Gup arrived at the symphony orchestra show, an elderly man approached him in tears and hugged him because his father was one of the recipients eight decades ago.

“It was humbling,” Gup said. “This was an incredibly emotional story for this community.”

From now until February, the McKinley Presidential Library in Canton is hosting an exhibit on A Secret Gift, which features some of the original letters, thank you notes, and the desk that Stone and his wife, Minna, used to write the checks.


Professor Ted Gup (second from right) at the desk of his grandfather, Sam Stone, which is on display through February at the McKinley Presidential Library in Ohio to honor Stone's work to help others at Christmastime in 1933. Seated is Gup's mother and Stone's daughter, Virginia. Also pictured is Gup's son and wife, Matt and Peg. (Courtesy Photo)

In addition to a mayoral proclamation honoring A Secret Gift, schools in Canton and surrounding communities assigned the book for middle and high school students.

Local businesspeople also raised about $44,000 recently to help people in need after being inspired by reading Gup’s book.

Gup adds this amazing fact: In the opening scene of A Secret Gift, Wooster College professor of oratory Delbert G. Lean reads Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Canton Presbyterian Church on December 17, 1933. Lean, Gup said, was a graduate of Emerson College. 

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