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.
While Stewart has also given money to other community causes in Kansas City and his hometown of Bruce, Miss., he offers the simple gifts of cash because it's something people don't have to "beg for, get in line for, or apply for."
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.
Over the years, Stewart's giving as Secret Santa grew. He started a Web site. He allowed the news media to tag along, mostly because he wanted to hear about the people who received the money. Reporters had to agree to guard his identity and not name his company, which he still does not want revealed.
His entourage grew over the years, and he began traveling with special elves. People like the late Negro Leagues icon Buck O'Neil, who handed out hugs while Stewart doled out $100s. NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus will join Stewart this year in Chicago when Stewart hands out $100s in honor of O'Neil, the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues.
They'll give out $100,000 between Chicago and Kansas City. Four Secret Santas who Stewart "trained" will hand out an additional $65,000.
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."