AKRON, Ohio — Santa Claus really did exist.
Helen Arnold met him unexpectedly in 1953 while shopping at Polsky’s department store in downtown Akron.
The brief encounter changed her family’s lives. From that year to 1965, the Arnolds had a generous secret Santa at Christmastime.
With her weekly pay as a dishwasher, Helen had only $37 to spend on gifts in 1953. Her husband, Roy, had been laid off from the Akron Sanitation Department, and the couple had eight kids — Cathy, Royal, Mona, Gale, John, Gary, Carla and Gerald — and would soon welcome a ninth, Donna. A 10th child, Marsha, had died as a baby.
They resided in a small home below 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 it was a struggle for his parents to pay the bills. He even offered to make do with less so that his siblings might have more.
“I remember telling her that ‘If you don’t have enough to get me a Christmas gift, don’t worry about it,’” he said.
Royal was 9 years old in 1953 when he and three siblings accompanied their mom to Polsky’s. They were browsing the bargain basement when a stranger approached them.
“Are these your children?” the man asked Helen. “They’re lovely children and well-behaved.”
Before Helen knew what was happening, the stranger placed a $20 bill in her hand and said: “Buy them something nice for Christmas.”
He then disappeared into the bustling crowd. It happened so fast that Helen didn’t get a good look at him, but she later described him as short, white and slim, maybe 50 years old with graying brown hair.
“All I remember is holding my mother’s hand and my mother was shocked.” Royal said.
It was a Christmas miracle. Helen went home that night and jotted a note to the Akron Beacon Journal, now part of the USA TODAY Network:
“I want to write this letter of appreciation to the gentleman who was in Polsky’s basement last Monday (Nov. 30),” she wrote. “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…
“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…
“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.”
She signed it “Grateful Mother.”
Two days after the letter was published, a man walked into the Beacon Journal lobby, handed an envelope to a maintenance worker and said: “See it gets to the right person.” He then quickly left.
The envelope contained four $20 bills and a note that read: “I had no way of knowing the lady had eight children. My! I 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 it a nice Christmas for all the children. I will be amply repaid just visualizing the gleam in their eyes.” Signed: Santa Claus.
A reporter tracked down the identity of “Grateful Mother,” visited the Arnold home and delivered the $80 to Helen.
“You don’t mean it’s from the same man, do you?” she gasped.
She had bought three dresses and two pairs of trousers with the original $20.
“Now the kids can have toys, too,” she said.
Joy filled the Arnold home that Christmas. The happy story could have ended there, but it was far from over.
In December 1954, another envelope arrived at the newspaper office. It contained $100 and a note: “Remember Grateful Mother and the eight 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 of some deserving children. Merry Xmas to you. —Santa.”
Once again, a reporter delivered the gift to Helen.
“Oh, God,” she cried. “I’ve been praying something would happen. But I never expected it.”
She explained that it had been an especially rough year. She had lost her job and her husband had found only temporary work. They had only $16 to buy a few toys for the kids.
“It’s wonderful, just wonderful,” she said of Santa’s gift. “God bless him.”
Remarkably, 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 “Grateful Mother.”
“We became the Christmas story every year,” Royal said.
The holidays marched past. After being treated for cancer, Helen studied to be a beautician through the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation and found part-time work. Her husband returned to the sanitation job, but suffered a back injury and was laid off again.
With Santa’s gifts, the family bought shoes, clothes and toys for the kids, paid off house bills, purchased coal for the furnace and acquired other needed items.
“Only a mother understands the worry of wanting so much for her family and having so little to offer, especially at Christmas,” Helen explained. “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.”
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 each year, the family expressed everlasting appreciation.
Santa took off Christmas 1963, later admitting that he couldn’t give any money to the Arnolds without revealing his identity, but he returned with $300 in 1964 and a final $300 in 1965.
By then, the family’s circumstances had turned around. Helen worked in Akron’s urban renewal office, and in a few years she would be named president of the Akron chapter of the NAACP. Her husband, Roy, was managing a bar, and the children had grown into young men and women.
In total, the mysterious benefactor gave the Arnolds $3,040 over 12 years, which amounts to nearly $25,000 today.
Royal thinks the kindness of a stranger helped his mother succeed.
“I believe it helped all of us in many different ways,” he said. “I think my family made history in this city.”
Royal grew up to be a restaurateur who owned Arnold’s Baroudi and Arnold’s Rib House in Akron.
In 1977, Helen won election to the Akron Board of Education, becoming the first African American woman to serve on the board. Wanting to give back to the community that had helped her, she served as a champion for anyone she saw as disadvantaged.
She was reelected five times and remained in office until her death in 2001 at age 76. In 2007, the Helen Arnold Community Learning Center opened, serving kindergarten through fifth grade in the Buchtel school cluster.
The Arnold family never learned the identity of the Secret Santa who disappeared as mysteriously as he arrived. A few theories arose, but a name was never confirmed.
“I would be curious to know,” Royal said.
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His parents are gone now, and only six siblings remain. The torch is passing to generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
When Helen Arnold was convinced that Santa was done helping her family, she composed another letter of thanks.
“Even through Santa may not come through this year, we have many happy memories that have passed,” she wrote. “I think of the changes he caused — restoring our faith in our fellow man, giving us courage to face our tomorrows through dim or bright, and most of all hope for the future …
“We give to Santa as our one special gift our utmost respect to a kind old gentleman who chose to show he cared about us. May God take care of you, wherever you are.”