Thomas Cannon, Sr., Poor Man’s Philanthropist

The “Poor Man’s Philanthropist” Thomas Cannon gave away over $150,000 usually in $1,000 checks from 1972 until his death in 2005. For 33 years, he lived a life of poverty so he could give away his small Post Office pension to deserving people he mostly read about in the newspaper.

By Valentine Museum Staff
Headshot of Thomas Cannon, Sr., a Black man wearing a dark suit, tie and white shirt.
Thomas Cannon, Sr., Courtesy of Library of Virginia

Thomas Cannon read stories in the newspaper about people in need or brave or kind individuals, he would mail a check to article’s author asking them to deliver the money to the story’s deserving subject. The former post office clerk retired in 1983, never earning more than $30,000 a year, but he felt called to give his money to help others. His gifts were always a surprise.  

Cannon was born in Richmond on August 3, 1925. His father died when he was three, and his mother, two older brothers and Thomas moved to Chase City, Virginia, to live in his grandmother’s three-room house. He dropped out of school at just 13 years old. In 1942, he joined the U.S. Navy at 17 and served as a signalman during World War II. Following the end of the war, Cannon returned to Richmond where he met and married Princetta Cooper. The couple had two sons and made their home for many years in Church Hill. 

In 1948, at the age of 23, he returned to Maggie L. Walker High School for one year. Continuing his education under the WWII G.I. Bill, Cannon attended Virginia Union University and ultimately earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Art Education and English at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. 

He taught for two years in Richmond Public Schools before beginning a long career in the U. S. Postal service as a distribution clerk until his retirement in 1983. Cannon’s retirement years were mostly spent caring for his wife, Princetta, as her health declined until her death in the spring of 2000.  

The couple spent very little of their income on themselves and lived in their Church Hill home without heat or air conditioning, until 1995 when a group of Richmonders decided to buy them a home near Maymont with heat and central air. Cannon would often ask himself why he felt the need to give away most of his money. He would find the answer in a cross shaped box that held Bible scriptures printed on small, rolled pieces of paper. One verse became his inspiration.  

“You did not choose me, I chose you. And I appointed you to bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.”
—John 15:16 

In 1972, the Westhampton Junior Women’s Club received Cannon’s first gift for their volunteer work at an elementary school in Richmond. While he usually gave $1,000 checks, there were also times when he would give smaller gifts. One Christmas, he boarded a Richmond city bus to hand out envelopes with $50 inside, and during the Bicentennial celebration, he donated $50 to each state.

He gave a $1,000 check to a young boy who turned in $40 he had found on the bus, even though he didn’t have enough money for lunch that day. Below is a story from the Richmond News Leader in 1984 where he gave $1,000 to a young man who had been burned rescuing an elderly neighbor from a fire.

In 1998, the Richmond Post Office honored Cannon with a special pictorial cancellation postmark as they issued a new philanthropy-themed stamp that pictured Cannon with the words “Thomas Cannon’s Philanthropy Station.” Cancellation postmarks are stamps applied to postage at the post office to show that the postage stamp has been used.

Exterior of envelope with two stamps on it of the special pictorial cancellation postmark featuring a Thomas Cannon’s image and the words “Thomas Cannon’s Philanthropy Station, Oct. 7, 1998, Richmond, Virginia 23232.” The envelope is addressed to Alyson L. Taylor-White. There is a Philanthropy stamp in the right-hand corner that is green with a bee and cream-colored flowers that says “Giving & Sharing: An American Tradition.”
Thomas Cannon’s Philanthropy Station cancellation postmark, Oct. 7, 1998, Thomas Cannon, Sr. Papers, 1973-2005, MSC0115, The Valentine

Cannon appeared on national television programs like Nightline and the Oprah Winfrey Show, and in local news interviews and newspaper features over the years. Cannon and his co-author Sandra Waugaman published the Poor Man’s Philanthropist: The Thomas Cannon Story in 2004.

Two women chatting and one woman says, “He used to be called the “Poor Man’s Philanthropist”-now it’s just “Poor Man” period. There is a sign that says Welfare Department Director and a man with torn clothes holding the Richmond Times-Dispatch asking “Buddy, can you spare me a dime? Or a foot stamp???” to a man who is sitting at a desk in front of a typewriter smoking a cigar.
“Poor Man’s Philanthropist” Cartoon, James Cannon, Sr., July 4, 1984, Thomas Cannon, Sr. Papers, 1973-2005, MSC0115, The Valentine


Thomas Cannon died in 2005. He did not want memorials or monuments to remember his life. In the end, he said that the best thing that we can do to honor his memory is to help somebody.


  • “Thomas Cannon Sr.,” Virginia Changemakers, accessed March 11, 2024, 
  • Richmond News Leader, November 3, 1983 
  • Richmond News Leader, January, 31, 1984 
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 24, 1996 
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 4, 1998 
  • Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 18, 2004 
  • The News Progress, January 24, 2005 


Need to cite this?

Authors Valentine Museum Staff
Work Title Thomas Cannon, Sr., Poor Man’s Philanthropist
Published March 19, 2024
Updated May 24, 2024
Copyright © 2024 The Valentine Museum