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Illness unmasks generous ‘Secret Santa’

A man who has given away millions of dollars and become known as Secret Santa for handing out Christmas cash to the needy in the Kansas City area is allowing his name to be publicized after 26 years. But the reason for the revelation is an unhappy one.
Frank Peterson, 93, left, shakes the hand of Kansas City's “Secret Santa” after receiving $1,000 from him in 2004 in Arcadia, Fla. Larry Stewart, who has become known as Secret Santa for handing out Christmas cash to the needy, is allowing his name to be publicized after 26 years.Tammy Ljungblad / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The answer to one of the happiest mysteries in the Kansas City area is being revealed this year.

A man who has given away millions of dollars and become known as Secret Santa for handing out Christmas cash to the needy is allowing his name to be publicized after 26 years.

But the reason for the revelation is an unhappy one. Secret Santa has cancer. He wants to start speaking to community groups about his belief in random acts of kindness, but he can't do that without telling people who he is.

The man who has spread cheer for 26 years is Larry Stewart, 58, of Lee's Summit, who made his millions in cable television and long-distance telephone service.

Stewart told The Kansas City Star that he was the man who would walk up to complete strangers, hand them $100 bills, wish them "Merry Christmas" and walk away, leaving astonished and grateful people in his wake. He handed out money throughout the year, but he said it was the Christmas giving that gave him the most joy.

Devoted life to returning favors
Now, he wants to inspire others to do the same. He said he thinks that people should know that he was born poor, was briefly homeless, dropped out of college, has been fired from jobs, and once even considered robbery.

But he said every time he hit a low point in his life, someone gave him money, food and hope, and that's why he has devoted his life to returning the favors.

Stewart grew up in Bruce, Miss., reared by his elderly grandparents, who survived on $33 a month and welfare staples. They heated water on the stove for baths and used an outhouse.

After he left home and college, he found himself out of work in 1971. After sleeping in his car for eight nights and not eating for two days, Stewart went to the Dixie Diner in Houston, Miss., and ordered breakfast. When the bill came, he acted as if he'd lost his wallet.

The diner owner came to him.

"You must have dropped this," the owner said, slipping a $20 bill into the young man's hand.

He paid, pushed his car to the gas station, and left town. But he vowed to remember the stranger's kindness, and to help others, when he could.

Triple failure
He arrived in Kansas City because he had a cousin here. He got married and started his own company, with money from his father-in-law.

But the company failed in 1977 and he couldn't pay the bills. It was the lowest point in his life.

"I was a failure in business. I was a failure as a husband. I was a failure as a father," he remembers thinking.

He got into his car with a handgun and thought about robbing a store. But he stopped and went home — and got a call from his brother-in-law, offering him money to tide him over.

After being fired from two jobs on two successive Christmases, Stewart stopped at a drive-in. Although he had little money himself, Stewart gave a cold and miserable carhop the change from a $20, much to her delight.

That's when Stewart's mission to secretly give away money at the holidays began.

Eventually, Stewart became a success and started Network Communications in 2002. The firm used independent sales agents to enroll customers for Sprint long-distance service.

In 1996, an arbitration panel ordered Sprint to pay Network and its sales agents $60.9 million in commissions it owed. Stewart got $5.2 million.

The poor boy from Mississippi now had a family, lived in a nice house and drove nice cars.

So, he started giving away more money, to dozens of causes. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The Salvation Army. The National Paralysis Foundation. The ALS Foundation. He supports the Metropolitan Crime Commission's Surviving Spouse and Family Endowment program.

And, all along, he gave away money to needy strangers.

But Christmas was special. He'd distribute thousands of dollars during visits to coin laundries, thrift stores, barbershops and diners.

People shouted with joy, cried, praised the Lord, and thanked Stewart repeatedly.

But Secret Santa moved on quickly to avoid attention.

Reporters sworn to secrecy
He did sometimes invite newspaper and TV reporters along, if they promised not to reveal his identity. It was reporters who dubbed him "Secret Santa."

In 1989, after some people chased his car when they saw the cash he carried, he decided he needed protection. He called Jackson County Sheriff's Capt. Tom Phillips.

"I thought, 'OK, this guy's nuts,'" recalls Phillips, now the Jackson County sheriff. "But at the end of the day, I was in tears — literally — just seeing what he did to people."

Eventually, Secret Santa took his sleigh ride to other places.

In 2001, after the terrorist attacks, he went to New York. The New York cop who accompanied him said he'd never forget the experience.

In 2002, Secret Santa was in Washington, D.C., victimized by the serial snipers. In 2003, it was San Diego neighborhoods devastated by wildfires. And in 2004, he was in Florida, helping thousands left homeless by three hurricanes.

Last Christmas, Secret Santa went back to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast.

He stopped in Houston, Miss., where the diner owner had helped him so many years ago. On a previous visit he had surprised the owner, Ted Horn, with $10,000. This time, they stamped $100 bills with the name "Ted Horn," and gave Horn money to distribute. And Horn took money from his own bank account to give away, too.

Secret Santa’s ‘elves’
Stewart has enlisted "elves" for years — George Brett, the late Buck O'Neil, Dick Butkus. He's already inspired copycats.

Four other Secret Santas plan to distribute a total of $70,000 of their own cash this year.

And Secret Santa plans to give away $100,000 this year. Since he started, he estimates he's given out more than $1.3 million in Christmas cash.

But this will likely be the last Christmas for Stewart's tradition. In April, doctors told Stewart that he had cancer of the esophagus. It had spread to his liver. He needed treatment, fast.

With help from Brett, he got into a clinical trial at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. Doctors tell him the tumors have shrunk, but they can't say whether the cancer is in remission.

"I pray for that man every single day," former Kansas City Chiefs star Deron Cherry — one of Stewart's elves — says. "There's a lot of people praying for him."