The Secret Benefactor

The Secret Benefactor

From Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul

The Secret Benefactor

There’s a delight that comes with helping other people.

Paul Newman

As a chauffeur for several years in the early 1910s, my father saw his affluent employer anonymously meet the needs of numerous people, aware they would never be able to repay him.

One instance stands out in my memory of the many stories my father shared with me. One day, my father drove his employer to another city for a business meeting. On the outskirts of town, they stopped for a sandwich lunch.

While they ate, several boys rolling hoops passed by their “Tin Lizzie.” One of the boys limped. Looking more closely, my father’s boss observed that the boy had a clubfoot. He stepped out of the car and caught up with the boy.

“Does that foot give you a lot of trouble?” the man asked the youngster.

“It slows down my running some,” the boy replied. “And I have to cut up my shoe to make it comfortable. But I get along. Why’re you asking me these questions?”

“Well, I may be able to help get that foot fixed. Would you like that?”

“Sure,” he said. The youngster was positive but a little confused by the question.

The ever-efficient businessman wrote down the boy’s name and returned to the car. Meanwhile, the boys picked up their hoops and continued down the street.

As my father’s employer got back in the car, he said, “Woody, the boy who limps . . . his name is Jimmy. He’s eight years old. Find out where he lives and get his parents’ names and address.” He handed my father the boy’s name on a piece of paper. “Go visit his parents this afternoon and do your best to get their permission to let Jimmy have his foot operated on. We can do the paperwork later. I’ll take care of all the costs.”

They finished their sandwiches, and my father drove his employer on to the business appointment.

It didn’t take long to get Jimmy’s home address from a nearby drugstore. Most everyone there knew the boy with the clubfoot.

The small house Jimmy and his family called home needed paint and repair. Looking around, my father noticed tattered shirts and patched dresses hanging on the clothesline attached to the side of the house. A discarded tire hanging from an old piece of rope on an oak tree served as a swing.

A woman in her mid-thirties responded to the knock on the rusty screen door. She looked tired, and her furrowed features betrayed a life of hardship.

“Good afternoon,” my father greeted her. “Are you Jimmy’s mother?”

She frowned slightly before responding. “Yeah. Is he in trouble?” Her eyes scanned my father’s starched collar and pressed suit.

“No, ma’am. I represent a wealthy man who wants to get his foot fixed so he can play like all his friends.”

“What’s the catch, mister? Ain’t nothing free in this life.”

“This is no tease. If you’ll let me explain it to you—and your husband, if he’s around—I think I can make it clear. I know this is sudden. I don’t blame you for being suspicious.”

She looked at my father once again, and, still hesitant, invited him inside. “Henry,” she called out in the direction of the kitchen, “come in here and talk to this man. He says he wants to help get Jimmy’s foot fixed.”

For almost an hour, my father explained the plan and answered their questions. “If you’re willing to let Jimmy have these operations,” he concluded, “I’ll send you some permission papers to sign. Again, we pay all costs.”

Perplexed, Jimmy’s parents looked at each other. They still weren’t sure about all this.

“Here’s my card. I’ll write you a letter when I send the permission papers. The things we have discussed, I’ll put in the letter. If you have any more questions, call or write me at this address.” This seemed to give them a little more assurance. My father left. His mission was accomplished.

Later, my father’s employer got in touch with the mayor with a request to send someone to Jimmy’s home to reassure the family that this was a legitimate offer. Of course, the name of the benefactor was not mentioned.

Soon, with permission papers signed and in hand, my father took Jimmy to an excellent hospital in another state for the first of five operations on his clubfoot.

The operations were a success. Jimmy became a favorite of the nurses on the orthopedic ward at the hospital. Tears and hugs were shared all around when Jimmy left for the last time. They gave him a gift as a final gesture of their care . . . a new pair of shoes, specially made for his “new” feet.

Jimmy and my father got to be great friends as they traveled back and forth from the hospital. On the final trip home, they sang songs, talked about what Jimmy could do now with his fixed foot and shared silent times as they approached his house.

A smile flooded Jimmy’s face when they arrived at his house and he stepped out of the car. His parents and two brothers stood clustered on the weathered front porch.

“Stay there,” Jimmy yelled to them. They stared in amazement as Jimmy walked toward them. His limp had vanished.

Hugs, kisses and smiles surrounded the returned youngster with the “fixed foot.” His parents shook their heads and grinned as they watched. They still could not believe that a man they had never seen would pay a large sum of money to have a foot corrected for a boy he did not know.

The wealthy benefactor removed his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes when the homecoming was described to him. “Do one more thing,” he said. “Near Christmas time, contact a good shoe store. Have them invite every member of Jimmy’s family to their store to be fitted for a new pair of shoes of their choice. I’ll pay for them all. Let them know I will do this only once. I don’t want them to become dependent on me.”

Jimmy became a successful businessman before his death a few years ago. To my knowledge, Jimmy never knew who paid for his foot surgery. His benefactor, Mr. Henry Ford, always said it’s more fun to do something for people when they don’t know who did it.

Woody McKay Jr.

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