Secret Santa's Legacy Lives On

fromKCUR

For nearly 30 years, Kansas City businessman Larry Stewart spent the holiday handing out crisp $100 bills to people in need. Stewart gave away more than $1 million dollars anonymously as "Secret Santa." Before he died in 2006, he revealed his identity and asked his friends to carry on the tradition

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

While many people are clinging to their cash this holiday season, there's a man in Kansas City - and a few other places - doing just the opposite. Secret Santas are out in red, giving crisp hundred dollar bills to random, unsuspecting people at thrift stores, Laundromats and bus stops. It's a tradition started by a Kansas City businessman more than 25 years ago.

Laura Spencer reports from member station KCUR.

Unidentified Woman: Good morning.

Unidentified Man: Good morning.

LAURA SPENCER: Secret Santa in a bright red cap and turtleneck walks briskly through a rundown thrift store in Kansas City's urban core. When you're handing out hundred dollar bills, you have to move quickly before a crowd gathers. He scans the aisles. Latonya Bell and her fiance, Damon Watson, are looking for a space heater. Secret Santa asks how much money they have to spend.

Mr. DAMON WATSON: I got, like, 10 here.

Unidentified Man: Let me see, let me see. You got 110.

Ms. LATONYA BELL: Oh!

Mr. WATSON: Thank you. Bless you.

SPENCER: Larry Stewart was the original Secret Santa. In the early 1970s, homeless and hungry, Stewart stopped at a small-town diner, but he had no money. His replacement as Secret Santa takes the story from here.

Unidentified Man: The cook, a fellow by the name of Ted Horn, came from behind the counter, reached down on the floor, appeared to pick up $20 and handed it to Larry and said, here, son. I think you dropped this.

SPENCER: Larry Stewart decided he'd give back when he could afford it. And even before he made his fortune in telecommunications, he started handing out fives, then twenties, then hundreds. Eventually, he gave away more than a million dollars - mostly in and around the Kansas City area. And he did it anonymously, as Secret Santa.

Stewart died a few years ago, but a new fellow with, yes, white hair and twinkly blue eyes took over. The guy's name, of course, is a secret. NPR knows Secret Santa's identity, but if we told you, he wouldn't be Secret Santa anymore.

Each Christmas season, he wears red and lives by what he sees as a modern day code of the West.

Unidentified Man: Honesty, integrity, patriotism, humility and anonymity for those Secret Santas.

SPENCER: Yes, he said Santas.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm Secret Santa, calling from Charlotte, North Carolina.

SPENCER: About a dozen folks, mostly CEOs, are out giving away cash across the country this year. The Charlotte Secret Santa says its charity with immediate gratification.

Unidentified Man #2: You're really giving directly to the people and the joy that you're able to see in the folks' eyes is just really special.

SPENCER: When pressed to reveal the identity of Kansas City's Secret Santa, his elf - well, PR consultant Pat O'Neill - says this:

Mr. PAT O'NEILL (PR Consultant): If I were ever to tell you who Secret Santa was, he wouldn't be real anymore. He's an everyman, in a sense.

SPENCER: This every man, before heading out on his eighth trip this holiday season, stands a thick stack of crisp, hundred dollar bills with the words Secret Santa in red letters. A stash is placed in Secret Santa's pockets, and then onto Santa's sleigh, or in this case, a fast black Dodge Charger, driven by the country sheriff.

Unidentified Man #3: Hang on back there.

SPENCER: Santa's learned to bring some backup when walking around with thousands of dollars in cash.

And it's off to another thrift store. In Lee Summit, an eastern suburb of Kansas City, Dennis Heinitz(ph), a retired Marine, was laid off from a job four months ago.

Mr. DENNIS HEINITZ (U.S. Marines, Retired): I have finally met Secret Santa. Never in my wildest dreams did I think somebody would just walk up to me and hand me hundred bills. This makes Christmas a lot easier.

SPENCER: How much they pass out is up to each Secret Santa, and for most, it's in the tens of thousands of dollars each holiday season. Kansas City's Secret Santa estimates he'll give away about $100,000 out of his own pocket this year, and he's already making plans to do it all over again next year.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Spencer in Kansas City.

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