Two years ago in Kennebunk, the author and journalist Ted Gup was handed a packet of letters that would unravel a 75-year-old mystery and lead to Penguin Press’s publication of his new book, “A Secret Gift: How One Man’s Kindness — and a Trove of Letters — Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.”

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Gup will be back in the area to give a free talk and sign books at the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport.

In 2008, Gup was staying at his log cabin near Bucksport, where he spends summers and does much of his writing.

“I came down to Kennebunk to surprise my mother, Virginia Sharp, on her 80th birthday,” Gup said. “We went out to dinner and she said, ‘I have this suitcase for you.’“

Inside the suitcase Gup discovered hundreds of letters and canceled checks dated 1933. That was the year an ad appeared in the Dec. 17 edition of The Canton Repository newspaper in Canton, Ohio, which is Gup’s hometown, offering to give a small cash gift to any family in need. The ad was placed by a man using the pseudonym B. Virdot.

“Seventy-five years later, my mother hands me this suitcase and I discovered that B. Virdot was my grandfather,” Gup said. “I spent the next couple years tracking down the descendants of the letter writers.”

The book tells the story of the letter writers and the hardships they endured during the darkest days of the Great Depression. In all, Gup’s grandfather Sam Stone wrote $5 checks to 150 families. Each check would be the equivalent of about $80 to $100 in today’s dollars.

During research that led to the book, Gup uncovered another secret about the successful businessman who was his grandfather: Stone was actually a Romanian Jew who had fled persecution in his homeland and reinvented himself when he reached America.

“I think this is one of the reasons he made these gifts,” said Gup, the author of “The Book of Honor” and is a journalism professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

The book has gained significant attention, including recent coverage in The New York Times and The Boston Globe. On Friday, Gup hosted a reunion in Canton for the families of those who were helped by the anonymous gifts. The event included an appearance by Helen Palm, the last living recipient of one of B. Virdot’s checks.

During Thursday’s talk in Kennebunkport, Gup will read some of the original letters.

“The book is just so spectacular,” said Ann Carmichael, the events coordinator of Kennebooks, which will co-host the talk and book signing. “He’s an investigative reporter, so the details are incredible. We’re not reading a history book. We’re reading the actual words of the people who were asking for help.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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