KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Larry Stewart, a millionaire who became known as Secret Santa for his habit of roaming the streets each December and anonymously handing money to people, died Friday. He was 58.
Stewart died from complications from esophageal cancer, said Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips, a longtime friend.
Stewart, who spent 26 years giving a total $1.3 million, gained international attention in November when he revealed himself as Secret Santa. He was diagnosed in April with cancer, and said he wanted to use his celebrity to inspire other people to take random kindness seriously.
"That's what we're here for," Stewart said in a November interview, "to help other people out."
Stewart, from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, made his millions in cable television and long-distance telephone service.
His private holiday giving started in December 1979 when he was at a drive-in restaurant nursing his wounds from having been fired. It was the second year in a row he had been fired the week before Christmas.
"It was cold and this carhop 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.
After that, Stewart hit the streets each December, handing out money, often $100 bills, sometimes two and three at a time. He also gave money to community causes in Kansas City and his hometown of Bruce, Miss.
Stewart said he offered the simple gifts of cash every year because it was something people didn't have to "beg for, get in line for, or apply for."
Stewart gave out $100,000 between Chicago and Kansas City in December. Four Secret Santas whom Stewart "trained" gave out another $65,000.