Decades ago, a mystery man spent thousands to give an Ohio family 'a nice visit from Santa Claus'
Helen Arnold sits at a table with her nine children on December 23, 1955, searching the Beacon Journal for gift ideas after receiving $ 100 from a mysterious Akron benefactor. The children from left are Carla (3), Gary (5), Mona (9), Gale (8), Cathy (14), Donna (7 months), Gerald (2), John (7) and Royal (11) .
AKRON, Ohio - Santa Claus really existed.
Helen Arnold unexpectedly met him in 1953 while shopping at Polsky's department store in downtown Akron.
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The brief encounter changed her family's life. From that year until 1965, the Arnolds had a generous secret Santa Claus at Christmas time.
With her weekly dishwasher salary, Helen had only $ 37 to spend on gifts in 1953. Her husband, Roy, had been fired from Akron's plumbing department and the couple had eight children - Cathy, Royal, Mona, Gale, John, Gary, Carla, and Gerald - and would soon have a ninth, Donna. A tenth child, Marsha, had died as a baby.
They lived in a small house under a nearby bridge. In addition to the family of 10, Helen's parents, brother, two sisters and their three children also lived there.
Royal Arnold, 76, of Akron understood that paying the bills was a struggle for his parents. He even offered to get by with less so his siblings could have more.
"I remember telling her, 'If you don't have enough to get me a Christmas present, don't worry about it," he said.
Royal was 9 years old in 1953 when he and three siblings accompanied their mother to Polsky. They were rummaging in the bargain cellar when a stranger approached them.
"Are these your children?" The man asked Helen. "They are nice children and well-behaved."
Before Helen knew what was going on, the stranger put a $ 20 bill in her hand and said, "Buy them something nice for Christmas."
Helen Arnold holds three crisp $ 100 bills after a secret Santa Claus returns in December 1964.
Then he disappeared into the busy crowd. It happened so quickly that Helen wasn't looking at him closely, but she later described him as short, white and slender, maybe 50 years old with gray brown hair.
"I just remember holding my mother's hand and my mother was shocked." Said Royal.
It was a Christmas miracle. Helen went home that evening and wrote a note on the Akron Beacon Journal, which is now part of the USA TODAY Network:
"I want to write this thank you letter to the gentleman who was in Polsky's basement last Monday (November 30th)," she wrote. “He gave me $ 20 to buy Christmas presents for the four children I had with me. I'm a mother of eight and every penny or dollar means something to me ...
“I don't know the gentleman, but wherever he is, I'm sure he doesn't know what kind of elevator he gave me. I was able to pay cash for some of the clothes that I wanted to put away.
“Surely the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christmas were present when this Lord dropped this money into my hand ...
“I could never thank this gentleman because he disappeared into the crowd while my children and I watched him.
"Thank you, sir, wherever you are."
She signed "Grateful Mother".
Two days after the letter was published, a man walked into the lobby of the Beacon Journal, handed an envelope to a maintenance worker, and said, “See he's reaching the right person.” Then he left quickly.
The envelope contained four $ 20 bills and a note that said, “I couldn't have known the lady had eight children. My! I may have a few earthly dollars, but she is the one who is blessed and having eight little ones to find time to recognize the little gift you deserve. When the Beacon Journal sees you receive this, please make it a merry Christmas for all the children. I'll be paid back copiously if I just see the glare in her eyes. “Signed: Santa Claus.
A reporter located the Grateful Mother, visited Arnold's house, and gave Helen the $ 80.
"You don't mean it's from the same man, do you?" she gasped for air.
She had bought three dresses and two pants with the original $ 20.
"Now the kids can have toys too," she said.
Arnold's house was filled with joy this Christmas. The happy story could have ended there, but it was far from over.
This is the note an anonymous man left in the lobby of the Beacon Journal in 1954. Do you recognize the handwriting? His identity remains a mystery.
Another envelope arrived at the newspaper office in December 1954. It contained $ 100 and a note: “Do you remember the grateful mother and eight children from last Christmas? I just got into town. Could you bring this to her so the kids can have a nice visit from Santa Claus? If not, you probably know some deserving children. Merry Christmas everyone. - Santa. "
Once again, a reporter presented the gift to Helen.
"Oh god," she called. "I prayed that something would happen. But I never expected it."
She explained that it was a particularly rough year. She had lost her job and her husband had only found temporary work. They only had $ 16 to buy some toys for the kids.
The Roy Arnold family looks at some of the Christmas presents bought in 1954 with a $ 100 gift from an unknown benefactor. On the left is mother Helen Arnold with children Gary, 4, John, 6, Gerald, 18 months, Gale, 7, Cathy 13, Carla 3, Royal 10 and Mona 8.
"It's wonderful, just wonderful," she said of Santa's gift. "God bless him."
Notably, another $ 100 envelope arrived in 1955, followed by $ 220 in 1956 and $ 220 in 1957. Each envelope had a brief note instructing the Beacon Journal to give the money to the Grateful Mother.
"We became the Christmas story every year," said Royal.
Helen Arnold watches as Gene Schroeter, head of the children's shoe department at Yeager, measures eight of the Arnold children for new footwear in December 1957. From the left are Donna, 20 months, Gerald, 3, Carla, 4, Gary, 6. John (8), Gale (9), Mona (10) and Royal (12). The oldest child, Cathy (15), was sick and could not be present for the photo.
The holidays passed. After Helen was treated for cancer, she studied beautician at the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation and found part-time work. Her husband returned to the plumbing job, but suffered a back injury and was fired again.
With Santa's gifts, the family bought shoes, clothes, and toys for the children, paid house bills, bought coal for the stove, and purchased other items they needed.
"Only a mother understands the worry of wanting so much for her family and having so little to offer, especially at Christmas," said Helen. "Knowing 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."
Helen Arnold and six of her children look at some of the Christmas gifts bought in 1959 with a $ 350 gift from an unknown benefactor. Clockwise from left are Gerald, 6, Gary, 9, John, 11, Gale, 12, Carla, 7, and Donna, 4.
The Phantom Santa continued to give generously. The Arnold family received $ 300 in 1958, $ 350 in 1959, $ 350 in 1960, $ 400 in 1961, and $ 300 in 1962.
And every year the family expressed their eternal esteem.
Santa started Christmas 1963 and later admitted he couldn't give money to the Arnolds without revealing his identity, but he returned with $ 300 in 1964 and $ 300 in 1965.
By then, the family's circumstances had changed. Helen worked at Akron's urban renewal office and in a few years was named president of the Akron chapter of the NAACP. Her husband Roy ran a bar and the children had grown up into young men and women.
In total, the mysterious benefactor gave the Arnolds $ 3,040 over 12 years, which is nearly $ 25,000 today.
Royal believes that a stranger's kindness made his mother successful.
"I think it has helped us all in many different ways," he said. "I think my family made history in this city."
Helen Arnold is holding the $ 350 she received from a secret Santa Claus in 1960. From left, their children are John, 12, Mona, 14, Donna, 5, Cathy, 19, Carla, 8, Royal, 16, Gerald, 7, Gale, 13, and Gary, 10. The children attended Bryan Elementary, Jennings Junior High and North High.
Royal grew up a restaurateur who owned Arnold's Baroudi and Arnold's Rib House in Akron.
In 1977, Helen won the Akron Board of Education election, becoming the first African American woman to serve on the board. She wanted to give back to the community that had helped her and served as an advocate for anyone she saw as disadvantaged.
She was re-elected five times and remained in office until her death in 2001 at the age of 76. In 2007 the Helen Arnold Community Learning Center was opened, which looks after kindergarten through fifth grade in the Buchtel school cluster.
The Arnold family never learned the identity of the secret Santa Claus, who so mysteriously disappeared when he arrived. Some theories arose, but a name was never confirmed.
"I would be curious to know," said Royal.
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His parents are gone now and there are only six siblings left. The torch goes to generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When Helen Arnold was convinced that Santa had helped her family, she wrote another thank you letter.
"Even if Santa Claus doesn't come through this year, we have a lot of fond memories that have passed," she wrote. “I think of the changes it has caused - to restore our trust in our fellow human beings, to encourage us to face our tomorrow through gloomy or bright times, and above all hope for the future ...
“As our only special gift, we give Santa Claus our greatest respect for a kind old man who wanted to show that he cares for us. May God take care of you wherever you are. "
This article originally appeared in the Akron Beacon Journal: Secret Santa Helped the Akron, Ohio family for Christmas for over a decade
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