Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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A Grateful Mother – Podcast #143

This story begins with a letter to the editor that appeared in the December 8, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio. It reads:

“I want to write this letter of appreciation to the gentleman who was in Polsky’s basement [a defunct department store] last Monday (Nov. 30). He gave me $20 to buy Christmas presents for the four children I had with me. I am the mother of eight children and every penny or dollar means something to me.

“There are no words to describe my feelings.

“I do not know the gentleman, but wherever he is, I am sure he does not know what a lift he gave me. I was able to pay cash for part of the clothing I was planning to put in layaway.

“Surely the spirit of God and the spirit of Christmas were present when that gentleman dropped that money in my hand and said, ‘Buy them something nice for Christmas.’

“I never was able to thank this gentleman because he disappeared in the crowd while my children and I watched him.

“Thank you, Mister, wherever you are.

“GRATEFUL MOTHER.”

On Monday, December 14, a response to this letter was published in the paper. In part, it reads, “I know. I am also a mother of eight small children who last year received a very unexpected gift of $20. I bought flannel and made pajamas for each of my children and doll pajamas for their dolls.

“Twenty-six yards of material, slightly damaged, cost me only 39¢ a yard. I sewed every night until the wee hours so I could finish them by Christmas. There was also money left over for a toy for each child.

“Words could never express my deep appreciation for that gift, so you see why I too am happy for GRATEFUL MOTHER in her good fortune.

“HAPPY MOM.”

Twenty dollars may note seem like a lot, but, adjusted for inflation, that would be like being handed two $100 bills today.

The very next day, a woman walked into the offices of the Beacon Journal and requested that letters she had penned be forwarded on to GRATEFUL MOTHER and HAPPY MOM. Each included a gift of $10 and she requested that her identity be kept confidential.

Then, on Wednesday, December 16, an unidentified man walked into the lobby of the Akron Beacon Journal building and slipped an envelope into the hand of Maintenance Superintendent John Horrigan. The mystery man then turned and hurried out the door of the building without Horrigan ever getting a good look at him. The envelope was addressed to the editor of the newspaper, so Horrigan made sure that it was delivered.

Inside the envelope was a note that said, “I had no way of knowing the lady had eight children. My! They may have a few earthly dollars but she is the one that’s blessed and with eight little ones to find time to acknowledge the little gift, you are deserving. If the Beacon Journal will see that you get this, please make sure it is a nice Christmas for all the children. I will be amply repaid just visualizing the gleam in their eyes.” The letter was signed “Santa Claus” and was accompanied by five $20 bills.

Just below this message was another: “The above is answering ‘Grateful Mother’ of your editorial page of Dec. 8. Please give her $80 and if you know who ‘Happy Mom’ is, your editorial page of Dec. 14, please give her $20. If you can’t locate, give it please to some little ones in need. A Merry Christmas to you.”

An article detailing this incredibly generous gift was published two days later. Images of the two checks drawn on the Beacon Journal’s bank account accompanied the story. The $80 check was issued to Mrs. Helen something-or-other – her last name had been blacked out – and the $20 check to a Mrs. Karl, with a longer black box obliterating her last name.

The two checks to Grateful Mother and Happy Mom. Image originally appeared on page 33 of the December 18, 1953 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

While no further mention was made of Mrs. Karl, a reporter was sent to the 108 Charles Street home of a woman simply identified in the story as Mrs. A. Couple that with the image of the check and we now know that the mother of the eight children was Mrs. Helen A.

It was learned that Mr. A. had been out of work for nearly three months and that Mrs. Helen A. was struggling to make ends meet on her $37 per week (approximately $360 per week today) salary as a dishwasher in a restaurant.

Needless to say, Mrs. Helen A. was shocked by this new gift. “You don’t mean the same man, do you?” She showed the reporter the three dresses and two pair of pants that she had purchased with that original $20. “Now the kids can have toys, too.” She continued, “The oldest girl had her heart set on a pair of shoe skates. Now she can have them.”

Mrs. Helen A. said that she never got a good look at her Santa Claus. Roughly, he appeared to be about 50 years of age, short, thin, and having had brown hair streaked with gray. He had approached Mrs. A. and complimented her on both the appearance and the good manners of her four children. It was at that moment that he slipped the money into her hand. She stated, “I was astonished when I saw it was a $20 bill. I could see him walking away so I tried to catch him. But the crowd just seemed to swallow him up.”

One year later, on December 23, 1954, the Beacon Journal would publicly reveal that Mrs. Helen A. was Helen Elizabeth Crandall Arnold. She had been born on August 2, 1924 in Burlington, New Jersey. Her family moved to Akron when she was four years old.

Mrs. Helen Arnold. This photograph, most likely taken in the 1990s, appeared on Facebook.

By this time, things had worsened for the Arnold family. Her husband Roy had only been able to secure a few days’ work as a laborer, while she had lost her job as a dishwasher. The couple was down to their last $16. In addition, the City Health Department ordered the Arnolds to move out of their Charles Street home. “They said we have too many people living in the house,” Mrs. Arnold stated. “We were told to move but we have no money for the rent. I just don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Luckily, Santa had not forgotten about the Arnolds. Once again, another letter made its way to the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. Inside the envelope was $100 and the following note: “Remember Grateful Mother and the 8 children last Christmas? I just arrived in town. Could you get this to her so the children can have a nice visit from Santa Claus? If not, I’m sure you know some deserving children. Merry Christmas to you. ‘Santa.’”

Santa’s handwritten note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1954 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Needless to say, Mrs. Arnold was shocked when a reporter handed her the money. “Oh, God,” she stated. “I’ve been praying something would happen. But I never expected it. It’s wonderful, just wonderful. God bless him.”

As the reporter turned to leave, Mrs. Arnold questioned, “Do you know the man who’s doing all this for us?” To which the reporter replied, “We wish we did. But I have a hunch we never will. Merry Christmas.”

Mrs. Arnold wished to thank this generous Santa personally, but that was impossible. So, she did the next best thing: she wrote a thank you letter that was published in the editorial section of the Beacon Journal. While several paragraphs long, her last sentence sums it up perfectly: “To our Santa: Your gift truly must have come from your heart and we receive it in gratefulness. Mrs. Helen Arnold.”

May 5, 1941 marriage license between 16-year-old Helen Crandall and 19-year-old Roy Arnold. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Things would be even worse for the Arnold family by the Christmas of 1955. Surprisingly, they were still living at 108 Charles Street. Mrs. Arnold had given birth to another child and was now living there with her nine children, Mrs. Arnold’s parents, two of her sisters and their children. Mr. Arnold was living with an uncle at the time, supposedly to help alleviate the crowded situation at home. In addition, the 31-year-old Mrs. Arnold had been diagnosed with cancer the previous August and had undergone radium treatments. Her cancer had gone into remission.

And, sure enough, their secret Santa came through once again. On December 22, 1955 a special delivery letter arrived at the editorial offices of the Beacon Journal. The handwritten note read, “Dear Beacon: I’m a little late. Would you mind playing Santa Claus again. Remember grateful mother and the eight children. Would you see that they get this. A merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope, once again, were five $20 bills.

Santa’s note that appeared on page 1 of the December 23, 1955 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Upon hearing of this special gift, Mrs. Arnold stated, “Things like this just don’t happen three times in a row. Never in the world did I ever think that whoever he is would help us out again. Thank the Lord!”

By Christmas of 1956, things appeared to be looking up for the Arnold family. They had moved to a 4-bedroom apartment at 177 E. North Street in the Elizabeth Park housing project. Husband Roy had secured a $70 a week job with the City Sanitation Department, while Helen was studying to become a beautician. “We’ve made a 100% improvement since last Christmas, but we still aren’t completely on our feet.”

Once again, a mysterious letter with money showed up at the offices of the Beacon Journal. “Dear Beacon, Remember grateful mother. Please see that she gets this. If not, any worthy cause will do. Pop and mom should each use $20 for themselves. Had a good year. Merry Xmas… Santa.”

It must have been a really good year for Santa because he far exceeded his previous $100 annual gifts. This year he had enclosed $220. Adjusted for inflation, that’s approximately $2,100 today.

On January 2, the paper published Mrs. Arnold’s thank you. It read, in part, “Into our lives again has stepped our phantom Santa Claus. We call him Santa and we sincerely believe in him, because for several years now he has sent us a sum of money and while we do not know who he is, we all feel that it is truly wonderful that God has designated such a wonderful miracle to take place in our lives.”

Mrs. Helen Arnold with eight of her nine children being fitted for new shoes. Image appeared on page 1 of the December 24, 1956 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1957’s entry into the Arnolds’ Christmas diary indicated that their fortunes had taken a turn for the worse. In May, Roy was laid off from his job with the sanitation department. Helen Arnold had completed her studies at the Akron School of Cosmetology and opened her own beauty shop. Unfortunately, the business was not doing well.

For the fifth straight Christmas and a row, Santa Claus made his journey from the North Pole to the editorial offices of the Akron Beacon Journal. His note read, “Dear Beacon, remember grateful mother. Honestly if I didn’t send it I just would not enjoy my Christmas. Thank you again for playing Santa and a Merry Christmas to you all. Santa” He matched his previous year’s gift of $220 in cash.

Mrs. Arnold wrote, “Only a mother understands the worry of wanting so much for her family and having so little to offer, especially at Christmas. To know that God is watching over us and has provided us with a guardian who has such a wonderful heart has filled my heart with gratitude.”

Santa’s 1958 gift would be his largest to date: six $50 bills for a total of $300. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you more about what happened that year because this front-page story was supposedly continued on page 2, which is missing from the scan of the December 21, 1958 issue of the Beacon Journal.

By the Christmas of 1959, Mrs. Arnold was desperate. Her husband Roy, having been unable to find work, turned to a life of crime and was sentenced to one to seven years in the Ohio Penitentiary on three counts of grand larceny. With her earnings as a beautician not being enough to support their family, she was forced to seek public assistance.

In a surprising move, a reporter at the Beacon Journal received a call from a man with a gravelly voice. “This is Santa,” the man at the other end of the line stated. “Did you get it?” The reporter immediately knew who we had on the line and attempted to get someone else at the newspaper to listen in on an extension. But, as soon the reporter replied, “Yes. We got it,” Santa hung up.

Yet, everything else was standard routine by now. Santa’s handwritten note read, “Remember grateful mother. If you can get this to her I’ll appreciate it. If not I’m sure you can find good use for it. I’d like her to have it. My blessings have been many. Merry Xmas to you. Santa” Inside the envelope were seven $50 bills.

For his generosity, Helen Arnold wrote, “This is the seventh year in which he has brought me from despair to a joyous holiday season. I know for certain that only The Man above has allowed him to enter and reenter our lives as mysteriously as he has for this length of time. The miracle of Christmas time makes me rejoice.”

By the Christmas of 1960, the Arnolds had moved out of the housing project to 67 E. Charles Street, where Helen planned to open a beauty shop in her new home’s front room. Her husband Roy had been paroled after serving a sentence of one year. “Times are hard, and with his record, it’s doubly hard for Roy to find a job. He’s a good worker, but folks won’t give him a chance.” She added, “I’m going into the beauty shop business to better my lot – and to be near the children. I don’t want to stay on relief. I want to be independent.”

For the eighth consecutive year, the mystery Santa offered the Arnolds a bit of much-needed relief, matching his previous year’s gift of $350.

Mrs. Arnold writes, “To you, who chose to be our Anonymous Santa, we all ask and pray for continued blessing upon a man with a lot of heart. God bless you. Perhaps through your help we may be able to get closer to being able to stand on our own two feet. But most important, our children know there is a Santa and one we are proud to know.”

In 1961, the Arnolds divorced, although this fact would be absent in future stories about the family. Helen Arnold continued as a beautician, while her 21-year-old daughter Catherine worked as a laundry folder to help support the family. It was nearly impossible for Mrs. Arnold to obtain a better paying job, since doing so would require costly childcare.

Instead, she began to devote some of her time to helping others. She volunteered as a neighborhood captain for a United Fund drive and became the president of the Bryan Elementary Parent Teacher Association. “I’ve given quite a bit of time doing things for other people because someone has always done something for me. How do you ever pay back the things people have done for you? This is the only way I know.”

Still forced to seek public assistance, Mrs. Arnold was grateful when Santa came through one more time. She wrote, “For the Christmas blessing this unidentified Santa gave, not only raised the spirits of the Arnolds, but helped Akron to see the fulfillment of the Christmas miracle. From the beginning – in our brief encounter many years ago – to the present, Santa’s benevolent kindness has made things possible which might have been impossible for us to attain.”

Helen Arnold and her family shortly after receiving Santa’s gift in 1961. Image appeared on page 2 of the December 20, 1961 issue of the Akron Beacon Journal.

1962 would mark the tenth anniversary of that moment when Mrs. Arnold would have her first and only glimpse of her secret Santa. Her financial situation had not improved, but Santa had not given up on her. He came through one more time with a $300 gift. In thanks, Helen wrote, “Although our Santa is short, he has the stature of the grandest St. Nicholas there is.” She continued, “Ten years have passed. I often wonder who our Santa may be. But then I don’t, because no one person really wants to brush aside the curtain.”

In August 1963, Helen Arnold boarded a bus to Washington DC to participate in the historic march from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to witness Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. Upon her return, she told the Akron Beacon Journal “This will be something to tell my children and grandchildren. We’re showing that Negroes will stand together.” It would also serve as the moment when Helen Arnold turned from being a poor mother of nine known solely for the annual gift that she received from Santa into a voice for her community, the poor, minorities, and the children of Akron.

There would be no helping hand from the Arnolds’ secret Santa in 1963. Not receiving the gift did not upset Helen. She was far more concerned about his well-being. Could he be ill? Could he have passed on? Could Santa have fallen on hard times? No one knew.

Yet, the Beacon Journal’s city editor, W. D. Schlemmer, was not silent on this lack of a gift. He wrote a lengthy story that was published on December 25, 1963, that included this paragraph: “And you, Mrs. Arnold, have worked hard to help your family – and your community. So many public causes – school interest, Neighborhood Forums, planning groups – have been better off because you have taken an active part.”

Advertisement for Helen E. Arnold that appeared on page 19 of the September 10, 1979 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal.

Not only had Mrs. Arnold become a voice in her community, but her fortunes began to change. In August 1964, she was hired by a consulting firm that was doing preparatory work for urban renewal around Akron’s BFGoodrich manufacturing plant. With a steady income, she was able to move a few doors down from her previous residence to 63 E. Charles Street.

In what must have come as a total surprise to Helen Arnold, since there was no gift the previous year, an envelope from Santa arrived at the editorial desk of the Beacon Journal. Inside were three $100 bills and a request to make sure that Mrs. Arnold received them. Santa claimed that he had not sent a gift the previous year because he had been out of town and sending a letter would have revealed his identity.

In a letter of thankfulness, Mrs. Arnold wrote, “To ‘Santa,’ who has reserved a place in our hearts and our home, may I say, you have brought us tidings of great joy, not because of the money but because you have lighted the flame of kindliness in the rebirth of Akron’s Christmas story. I know that you, ‘Santa,’ must feel as I do, that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and cometh from the Father. I can only express my feelings with humility for we owe so much to you. May God bless you.”

In April 1965, Mrs. Arnold was hired by the city of Akron as a consultant. Her job was to operate an office to distribute information to residents in the area designated for urban renewal. The job was to last six months and paid $2,400. (Approximately $19,700 today.) In October, her contract was extended for an additional year.

Life was starting to look up for Helen Arnold, but she commented, “We’re not socially deprived any more but we have a long way to go.”

In what would seem to be a repeat of Christmas past, Santa once again delivered an envelope containing $300 and a note to the Beacon Journal. Yet, it would be last. The Beacon Journal calculated that the Arnolds’ secret Santa had given the family a total of $3,040. To this day, his identity remains unknown.

Yet, life went on for Helen Arnold. As her children grew and she had more time for herself, she became increasingly active in the causes that she believed in most. Between 1970 and 1972, she served as the President of the Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1973, Helen was defeated in her attempt to run for the Akron City Council. In 1976, Helen was named the Vice President of the Ohio Black Political Assembly.

Advertisement that appeared in the November 4, 1977 publication of the Akron Beacon Journal on page D15.

She would find her true calling in 1977 when she was elected to be the first African American woman on the Akron Board of Education, which, at the time, was dominated by board members who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. She was 53 years of age and had campaigned as a fighter for blue-collar workers and the poor. Helen would eventually be appointed Akron Board of Education president and in 1996 was named by the Ohio School Boards Association as one of the top school board members in the state.

When Helen Arnold died on February 16, 2001 at the age of 76, she had served on the Akron Board of Education for twenty-four years. Akron Assistant Superintendent Sylvester Small stated, “I think the whole community has suffered a tremendous loss. Helen Arnold was everyone’s mother, grandmother, aunt. She was everyone’s conscience that says you’ve got to serve these kids and you’ve got to serve your community.” After her passing, on August 29, 2007, the Helen E. Arnold Community Learning Center was opened in her honor.

I’ll leave you with one final quote from Helen Arnold: “I have been poor. I have been on welfare. I have had to struggle and yet, always, there was a way for me to get beyond each one of these situations… So I am thankful. Really thankful.”

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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