Susan Dahl had spent four months homeless in Colorado and just been on a harrowing 10-hour bus trip through sleet and snow. Hungry and broke, all she wanted to do was get back to family in Minnesota.
That's when a tall man in a red coat and red hat sat next to her at the downtown bus station, talked to her quietly and then slipped her $100 on that recent December afternoon.
The man was doing the work of Larry Stewart, Kansas City's original Secret Santa who anonymously wandered city streets doling out $100 bills to anyone who looked like they needed it. Stewart died of cancer at age 58 earlier this year, but his legacy lives on.
"He said 'Here's a $100 bill ... and this is in memory of Larry Stewart,' " said Dahl, 56.
During about a quarter century, Stewart quietly gave out more than $1.3 million to people in laundromats, diners, bus stations, shelters and thrift stores, saying it was his way of giving back at Christmas for all the wealth and generosity he had received in his lifetime.
For years, Stewart did not want his name known or want thanks or applause, but last December he acknowledged who he was and used his last few months while battling cancer to press his message of kindness toward others. He even trained some friends in the ways of Secret Santa.
Friend carries on Stewart's behalf
This Christmas, a friend who told Stewart in the hospital that he would carry on for him is out on the streets, handing out $100 bills, each one stamped with "Larry Stewart, Secret Santa."
Between Kansas City and several other cities this Christmas, the new Secret Santa will give away $75,000 of his own money, mostly in $100 bills.
"I didn't want to be a Secret Santa," said the man, a business consultant who lives in the Kansas City area. "I wanted to give Larry money. But last year, he said I had to hand it out myself. So I did, and I got hooked."
This new Secret Santa talks about Larry Stewart to just about everyone he encounters. "Have you ever heard of a man named Larry Stewart?" he asks before handing out $100 or more.
Depending on who he's talking to, the new Secret Santa might say Stewart was a man who believed in making people happy by giving them money they didn't have to ask for, apply for or wait in line for.
"There was this fella named Larry Stewart," he tells a man in the bus station. "He was an old friend of mine. He was called Secret Santa, and every year he would find a few people who might need a little money and he would ask that you pass on the kindness."
People respond differently to the gesture. Some cry. Some scream. A rare few even say "No thanks."
Others take the money and offer their own gifts. like Robert Young, who was homeless and had only 20 cents in his pocket. When Secret Santa gave him $200, Young, 50, took out an old notebook and ripped out a song he had written.
"It's yours now," he told Secret Santa, who thanked Young, and carefully tucked the pages into his pocket.
The new Secret Santa has also started a Web site, and is trying to recruit other Secret Santas across the country. "Larry's dream was for a Secret Santa in every city," Kansas City's Santa said.
There are now a couple apprentices, with more candidates turning up all the time. But, he says, you don't have to be willing to hand out money to be a Secret Santa.
"Anyone can be a Secret Santa," he says. "You don't have to give away $100. You can give away kindness. Help someone."