A plea from a ‘Good Fel­low’

In 1909, thou­sands of Chicagoans were in­spired to be­come Se­cret San­tas to the city’s chil­dren

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO FLASHBACK - By Elise De Los San­tos ekde­los­san­[email protected]­bune.com

The hol­i­days tend to in­spire anony­mous acts of good­will. Ev­ery year we hear about valu­able coins be­ing dropped into Sal­va­tion Army dona­tion ket­tles; just a cou­ple of days be­fore Thanks­giv­ing this year, a gold coin worth $1,500 was found in a ket­tle in subur­ban Geneva.

The air of mys­tery is as much a draw as the acts of char­ity them­selves — who is the bene­fac­tor? What are his or her mo­ti­va­tions? Is one per­son be­hind it all? Mem­bers of a se­cret group work­ing to­gether?

In 1909, one Chicagoan at­tempted to in­spire an en­tire army of anony­mous donors to rise up with an ap­peal that ap­peared on the front page of the Tri­bune.

“Last Christ­mas and New Year’s eve you and I went out for a good time and spent from $10 to $200. Last Christ­mas morn­ing over 5,000 chil­dren awoke to an empty stock­ing — the bit­ter pain of dis­ap­point­ment that Santa Claus had for­got­ten them. …

“Now, old man, here’s a chance. … Just send your name and ad­dress to The Tri­bune — ad­dress Santa Claus — state about how many chil­dren you are will­ing to pro­tect against grief over that empty stock­ing, in­close a two­cent stamp and you will be fur­nished with the names, ad­dresses, sex, and age of that many chil­dren. It is then up to you, you do the rest. Se­lect your own present, spend 50 cents or $50, and send or take your gifts to those chil­dren on Christ­mas eve.”

It was signed sim­ply: “Good Fel­low.”

The ap­peal was pub­lished on Dec. 10; the next day, the Tri­bune re­ported that “yes­ter­day’s mail de­liv­er­ies brought a peck of let­ters to Santa Claus ad­dressed in care of The Tri­bune. They carry the pledge that at least 2,000 chil­dren … will know now that there is a Santa Claus.”

In the days that fol­lowed, the Tri­bune printed nearly daily re­ports on the grow­ing re­sponse to the pro­gram. By Dec. 13, 1,011 Good Fel­lows had pledged to help 7,610 of the city’s chil­dren. (That Tri­bune report also in­cluded this clar­i­fi­ca­tion: “In jus­tice to all, it must be said that the ‘Good Fel­lows’ are not con­fined to the male sex. Many let­ters are be­ing re­ceived from women. While old Santa al­ways has been rep­re­sented with long whiskers and mas­cu­line at­tire, ‘Good Fel­low’ heartily wel­comes the women.”)

By Dec. 16, more than 14,000 chil­dren were on Santa’s list.

To cope with the vol­ume of let­ters arriving in the Tri­bune news­room, a “Christ­mas bureau” was cre­ated, with 12 men work­ing un­der the orig­i­nal Good Fel­low. The Tri­bune of­fice was “a hive of in­dus­try,” with cat­a­logers work­ing late into the night to or­ga­nize the chil­dren’s names.

The work paid off. On Christ­mas Day 1909, “Fif­teen thou­sand chil­dren in Chicago are hap­pier this morn­ing be­cause of the cam­paign for a full Christ­mas stock­ing started by the orig­i­nal ‘Good Fel­low’ and sec­onded by about 3,000 of his con­fr­eres in the big city.”

Af­ter a suc­cess­ful first year, the Good Fel­low cam­paign re­turned the next, in­spir­ing not only more Chicagoans to play Santa Claus but also po­etry to be writ­ten for the cause.

“Bring or send dear chil­dren con­tri­bu­tions soon/ And ad­dress your parcels all to ‘The Tri­bune’/ The Good Fel­lows surely will your gifts di­vide/ Grate­ful to the givers for the city’s pride,” wrote one poet.

In early 1911, the Good Fel­lows caught the at­ten­tion of the Chicago-based Es­sanay Film Man­u­fac­tur­ing Co., the Hol­ly­wood of its time, which pro­duced a movie about “a cyn­i­cal old chap con­ve­niently named Grouch” that tips its hat to the pro­gram.

Grouch’s sto­ry­line bears re­mark­able sim­i­lar­i­ties to that of Scrooge in Charles Dick­ens’ “A Christ­mas Carol.” In a no­table de­par­ture, Grouch reads “a news­pa­per ac­count of the ac­tiv­i­ties of the ‘good fel­lows’” be­fore he dreams of a Christ­mas past and soon af­ter ex­pe­ri­ences a change of heart.

While it’s un­clear how many view­ers of the film in other cities were in­spired by it to do good, there is ev­i­dence the Good Fel­low pro­gram reached those out­side of Chicago — and those out­side the usual scope of phi­lan­thropy.

“The Tri­bune yes­ter­day re­ceived the fol­low­ing let­ter,” the news­pa­per re­ported on Dec. 14, 1911. “‘Gentle­men: In­closed please find post-of­fice money or­der to the amount of $10. This is sent you by a con­vict at this in­sti­tu­tion.” The let­ter was signed by the war­den of the Wis­con­sin State Prison.

The con­vict’s dona­tion, along with the con­tri­bu­tions of 12,000 other Good Fel­lows, helped fill the stock­ings of 19,786 chil­dren that year.

The Good Fel­low pro­gram con­tin­ued help­ing the city’s needy chil­dren for decades. It even­tu­ally be­came part of Chicago Tri­bune Char­i­ties, which still op­er­ates to­day.

The in­tent of anonymity faded as the years passed. Later ar­ti­cles call­ing on read­ers to be­come Good Fel­lows pub­lished the names of those who had al­ready do­nated gifts.

As for the iden­tity of the orig­i­nal Good Fel­low, that re­mained a tightly kept se­cret in the pages of the Tri­bune for the first 18 years, though the pa­per did let slip some de­tails.

A note in the ini­tial 1909 ap­peal as­sured read­ers that “‘Good Fel­low’ is not a pro­fes­sional phi­lan­thropist, he takes a drink, cusses a bit, and even goes out at night with the boys for a mild good time — but he has taken care of from fif­teen to twenty chil­dren a year in Chicago.”

Good Fel­low him­self wrote about “how it feels to go down a dark street with a bun­dle of dolls in one hand and a gun in the other,” de­scrib­ing his en­deav­ors from be­fore the pro­gram started. “I was in a strange neigh­bor­hood with $250 in my pocket. I stopped at a friend’s place of busi­ness. He handed me a six shooter re­volver. Then I trudged away, the re­volver on top of the bun­dle of toys.

“There isn’t a man in Chicago who would have stuck me up had he known my er­rand,” he as­sured read­ers, “but there was a chance he might have held me up and then dis­cov­ered my mis­sion af­ter­ward.”

This un­fail­ing con­fi­dence in the good­ness of Chicagoans was found in Ed­ward Churchill Fitch, whom the Tri­bune re­vealed as the founder of the Good Fel­low char­ity when he died in 1928.

A few years later, in the leadup to 1932’s Good Fel­low drive, the story of how ex­actly Fitch started the pro­gram was fi­nally told.

The “kindly, un­ob­tru­sive” Fitch, an as­sis­tant city at­tor­ney, walked into the mostly empty Tri­bune of­fices at 1:30 a.m. and was let up to the man­ag­ing editor’s of­fice. He ex­plained to James Kee­ley that he had been dis­tribut­ing toys to poor chil­dren for the past five years.

“Tonight I was on a party with some friends and a good deal of money was thrown away. On my way home I be­gan to think that good fel­lows might spend their money in a bet­ter way,” Fitch ex­plained. “I give you the idea for what it’s worth. Don’t use my name.”

For the next three hours, Kee­ley and Fitch worked on a draft for the mes­sage.

“Prior to this night in 1909 no one had ever thought of en­list­ing news­pa­per read­ers in good-will move­ments,” the 1932 Tri­bune ar­ti­cle stated. “To­day scarcely a large city in the coun­try is with­out a Good Fel­low pro­gram or its coun­ter­part, and vari­a­tions of the plan have been taken up abroad.”

Though Fitch would later move to Spring­field and con­tinue his Good Fel­low work there, he kept a close eye on the Chicago ini­tia­tive in its early years.

Each year he’d visit the Tri­bune to check on the pro­gram’s progress, he’d say: “Re­mem­ber now, keep my name out of it.”

Why the in­sis­tence on anonymity? The orig­i­nal Good Fel­low ex­plained that in his ap­peal to Tri­bune read­ers in 1909.

“Nei­ther you nor I get any­thing out of this, ex­cept the feel­ing that you have saved some child from sor­row on Christ­mas morn­ing. If that is not enough for you then you have wasted time in read­ing this — it is not in­tended for you, but for the good fel­lows of Chicago.”

CHICAGO TRI­BUNE HIS­TOR­I­CAL PHOTO

Jerry, 5, didn’t get those two front teeth for Christ­mas, but the truck was a grand sub­sti­tute Christ­mas gift at Nor­we­gian Lutheran Chil­dren’s Home on Dec. 24, 1952.

CHICAGO TRI­BUNE HIS­TOR­I­CAL PHOTO

Ex­ec­u­tives and em­ploy­ees of Cen­tral Mo­tor Freight As­so­ci­a­tion un­load 6,000 Good Fel­low Christ­mas gifts at Tri­bune Tower on Dec. 12, 1963.

CHICAGO TRI­BUNE HIS­TOR­I­CAL PHOTO

Richard, 2, Car­men, 5, Con­suelo, 3, and Dione­sio, 11, in their home on South Peo­ria Street af­ter Good Fel­lows had come and gone in 1941.

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