Kansas City – For 26 years, a man known only as Secret Santa has roamed the streets every December quietly giving people money. He started with $5 and $10 bills. As his fortune grew, so did the gifts. In recent years, Secret Santa has been handing out $100 bills, sometimes two or three at a time, to people in thrift stores, diners and parking lots. So far, he's anonymously given out about $1.3 million. It's been a long-held holiday mystery: Who is Secret Santa?
But now, weak from chemotherapy and armed with a desire to pass on his belief in random kindness, Secret Santa has decided it's time to reveal his identity.
He is Larry Stewart, a 58-year-old businessman from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, Mo., who made his millions in cable television and long-distance telephone service.
His holiday giving started in December 1979 when he was nursing his wounds at a drive-in restaurant after getting fired. It was the second year in a row he had been fired the week before Christmas.
"It was cold and this car hop didn't have on a very big jacket, and I thought to myself, `I think I got it bad. She's out there in this cold making nickels and dimes,'" he said.
He gave her $20 and told her to keep the change.
"And suddenly I saw her lips begin to tremble and tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She said, `Sir, you have no idea what this means to me.'"
Stewart went to the bank that day and took out $200, then drove around looking for people who could use a lift. That was his "Christmas present to himself." He's hit the streets each December since.…
That was a feeling he came to know in the early '70s when he was living out of his yellow Datsun 510. Hungry and tired, Stewart mustered the nerve to approach a woman at a church and ask for help.
The woman told him the person who could help was gone for the day, and Stewart would have to come back the next day.
"As I turned around, I knew I would never do that again," Stewart said.…
Doctors told Stewart in April that he had cancer of the esophagus and it had spread to his liver. He has been lucky, he says, to get into a clinical trial at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. But the aggressive chemotherapy has stripped away his appetite and energy. He's lost about 100 pounds, but has held onto his white hair.
The treatment costs more than $16,000 a month, not including the cost of traveling to Houston every two weeks and staying there for five or six days. He now has two months off, but returns to treatment in February.
His insurance company won't cover the cost of the treatment, which has left him concerned about his finances and his family.
Now, his mission is bigger than handing out $100 bills. Stewart wants to speak to community groups about his devotion to kindness and to inspire others to donate their time and money.
"That's what we're here for," Stewart says, "to help other people out."
I knew a man like Stewart. He lived in a poor neighborhood. He had little money. But he somehow managed to find the cash to help street people, institutionalized former neighbors and random people he met over the years. He brought candy and sundries to nursing home residents, even as he himself became one, and continued to give out candy until 2 weeks before his death. He bought shoes for street people. Winter coats and hats. Toys for children. And he did this without being asked and without recognition. Pat Levy was a good man, perhaps the kindest man I've ever known. Just as his memory is a blessing, so should Stewart's living be one, and may God grant him many more years and the continued resources and the strength to do the good he does so well.