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By Whitney Keith
During the early part of 1940, monetary gifts came to 12 current and former residents of Douglas County from an anonymous giver, later dubbed the “Angel of Ava.”
According to “A Reminiscent History of Douglas County, Missouri, 1857-1957” by J.E. Curry, recipients were: R.L. Story ($150), Jack Blair, Brush Judd, Grace Singleton, Mrs. E.E. Lawson, D.W. Tillman (each $100), Dr. J.L. Gentry ($80), Mrs. H.S. Wilson ($50), J.E. Mackey ($100), Elmer E. Christian ($20).
Most of the gifts were in the form of cashiers’ checks or bank drafts from Kansas City banks, though a few were in cash.
The mysterious giver sometimes signed notes to the recipients as “your Sunshine Friend,” and indicated that he or she was a friend of years gone by.
According to the history, Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Singleton were widows of formerly prominent businessmen in Ava. Brush Judd and Jack Blair were also former merchants, while R.L. Story was in the real estate business.
D.W. Tillman was mayor of Ava and manager of the Ava Farmers Exchange. Dr. Gentry was actively practicing medicine.
The president of a local bank wrote to one of the banks that sent money and inquired who purchased the check made payable to Brush Judd, according to the history.
The reply was that a “J. Brush Judd” had purchased the check.
One of the few facts known about the giver was that he or she read the Douglas County Herald.
The Herald received communications from the giver asking for addresses for many people, which the Herald published.
In one of the letters to the Herald was $12, with instructions that it be delivered to the General Baptist Young Peoples Society.
As there was not currently a young peoples society, the money was given to Miss Marjorie Reynolds, who was active in youth work at the church, to be used to help start such a society.
The story spread like wildfire, even prompting an article in Time Magazine on April 8, 1940.
The Time article said, “a $100 check came for Mrs. Grace Singleton, whose husband died last June. Widow Singleton used the money to pay off a note at the bank, buy seed oats for her farm.”
Later in the article, it said, “Mrs. Henry S. Wilson, another widow of an Ava merchant, straightway ran across the street to show her friend old Dr. Jasper Leonard Gentry her check for $50. Said she: “You’ll be next to get one of these.”
“Why, they’ve even forgotten I’m here,” said Dr. Gentry. Five minutes later in came his mail; in it was a check for $80, and a note: “I was sick and ye ministered unto me. Every man shall be rewarded for his work.”
Bob House, great-grandson of Marybelle (Mrs. H.S.) Wilson, remembered some details of the story.
“She received a check, and was very pleased to get it,” he said. “Like many people in Ava, they had lost money when the banks failed in the 1930s, and Henry (her husband died in the late 1930s, so she was a widow with limited resources.”
The family had been prominent in Ava, with Marybelle’s grandfather, J.G. Reynolds, having started Ava’s first general store, bank and dealership.
Her husband, Henry, was the school superintendent, a teacher, a state representative and owned the local “Opry House.”
Marybelle herself had a millinery shop next to the general store. The family’s home was on Washington Avenue, and now houses the Douglas County Historical Society and Museum.
“I would assume most people who received money had done a favor for the giver,” House said. “My great-grandfather (Henry) co-signed many notes for people, and when the banks failed and they were defaulted on, he paid them.
“That type of present would have helped my great-grandmother out tremendously.”
Reflections is a weekly column exploring the history of Douglas County. Current topics include local festivals, school history and Douglas County residents who have a special talent. If you have an idea for an article, please call 417-683-4181 or e-mail email@example.com.