Secret Santa, facing cancer and medical bills, reveals himself

Saturday, November 18, 2006
Larry Stewart

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- For 26 years, each December a man known only as Secret Santa has roamed the streets quietly giving people money.

He started with $5 and $10 bills, but that was when he had $600 in the bank. As his fortune grew, so did the gifts. For a while now, Secret Santa has been finding people in thrift stores, diners and parking lots and handing them $100 bills, maybe two or three at a time.

So far he has 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 say who he is and at least semi-retire.

He's 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 private holiday giving started in December 1979 when he was at a drive-in restaurant nursing his wounds from having been fired.

"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 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.'

"And man, I'm telling you what, it just ripped my heart right out," he said. "And I thought, Wow. I had never had a feeling like that."

Stewart went to the bank that day and took out $200, mostly in $5s and $10s and drove around looking for people who could use a lift. That was his "Christmas present to himself." And it's been his present every year since.

Stewart has hit the streets each December since, handing out money to people with that "look in their eyes."

"If you see someone in a thrift store parking lot, and they've got the hood up on their rusted-out car, then they have a need, and it's immediate."

While Stewart has also given money to scores of other community causes in Kansas City and his hometown of Bruce, Miss., he offers the simple gifts of cash each year because it's something people don't have to "beg for, get in line for or apply for."

Over the years, Stewart's giving as Secret Santa grew, as did his entourage. He began traveling with special elves. People like the late Negro Leagues icon Buck O'Neil. NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus is Stewart's West Coast elf.

They'll give out $100,000 between Chicago and Kansas City. Four Secret Santas who Stewart "trained" will give out another $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 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 what it costs him to travel to Houston every two weeks and stay for five or six days. He now has two months off, but returns to treatment in February.

Doctors say the tumors have shrunk, but no one is talking about a remission.

His insurance company does not cover the cost of the treatment, and the cost has left him concerned about finances and his family.

So 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 give as much time and money to other people as possible.

"That's what we're here for," Stewart says, "to help other people out."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: