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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Name:
Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Secret Santa's Further Adventures

This story by Richard Lake appeared in The Clarion-Ledger of December 17, 2006.

For nearly half his life, Larry Stewart kept a secret identity, like a superhero without the super powers.

Every year around Christmastime, the Mississippi native dressed up in special clothes and did good deeds.

And then this year, Stewart removed his mask. He left his secret identity behind and began granting interviews.

"I had no idea what an impact there'd be when I went public," said Stewart, 58, who has been handing out wads of cash to strangers from coast to coast since 1979.

Over time he earned the nickname Secret Santa and his story appeared in newspapers across the country.

Stewart did not start out wealthy. He was raised mostly by his grandmother in the tiny north Mississippi town of Bruce.

He was born out of wedlock in 1948, and his mother left her son with her parents.

Stewart's grandfather died when the boy was just 11. He and his grandmother collected $33 a month in welfare, he said, and survived on government commodities: free cheese, oats, peanut butter and powdered milk.

Stewart learned to pick cotton, haul timber from the woods, plow the fields and bale hay. His mother had moved to Memphis and begun another family.

In the summertime, the teenage Stewart worked in a sawmill and dreamed of a way out.

Sports provided his opportunity.

He earned a football scholarship to a junior college a couple hours north of home. In the off-seasons, he sold vacuum cleaners and magazines door to door.

He continued selling door to door after college, but bad luck followed him. The company he worked for went out of business.

That was in 1971. He was in the town of Houston, Miss., just around the corner from his old home in Bruce.

He parked his beaten-down four-door Datsun in the town square, backed into a parking spot because the license plates were expired. The gas tank was empty, and so was his belly.

Down the street sat the Dixie Diner, and so Stewart cooked up a plan: He'd eat breakfast there, then pretend he'd lost his wallet. Perhaps he'd be allowed to wash dishes or clean the tables as payment.

"I put on what I thought was an Academy Award-winning performance," he recalled.

It did not fool the man behind the counter.

"Son, you must have dropped this," the man said to the filthy Stewart, flashing a $20 bill in his face.

Blown away, Stewart knew he had no choice but to accept the money, and the ruse.

He paid for his meal, left a tip, pushed his Datsun to a gas station to fill the tank, and screamed out of town.

On the road, Stewart marveled about what the man in the diner had done. He made a vow to God that he'd return the kindness one day.

But for now, he was homeless and broke, and so Stewart allowed his car to be repossessed, and he took a bus to Kansas City, where he had a cousin who'd invited him to stay for a week.

Eight years went by. Stewart stayed in Kansas City, working steady.

Two weeks before Christmas 1979, he was fired. He had no plan for the future.

He'd long ago forgotten about his promise to God.

And then one day, he was getting a burger at a drive-in restaurant, the kind where carhops bring the food out to you.

The girl who came with his food "had that look," Stewart recalled. "That lost look of hopelessness. I recognized that look."

He paid with a $20 bill, and for no reason at all, he told the girl to keep the change.

"Her face began to tremble. She put her hands over her lips and she began to cry," he said.

"Sir," she told him, "you have no idea what this means to me."

That was when Stewart remembered his promise.

And so he drove to the bank, withdrew $200 of the $600 he had left to his name in $5 and $10 bills, and proceeded to give it away.

He drove to thrift stores and random parking lots and handed money to strangers.

"That was a great Christmas," he said. "That's where my life began to turn around at a fast pace."

Indeed, as he continued his burgeoning new tradition of giving money away at Christmastime, he began to succeed elsewhere.

"The feeling that comes from that kind of giving," he said, "it's almost an addiction it feels so good."

Though he values his privacy and does not want to reveal his line of work, he was successful.

He made his first million by 1982, and kept on making money. He began giving away $20 bills instead of fives, and then $100 bills.

Soon, he invited newspaper and TV reporters on his Christmas treks around Kansas City. Because he wanted to protect his identity - he hadn't even told his family about his deeds yet - he earned a nickname in the media: Secret Santa.

All along, Stewart never forgot what that man in the diner had done for him so long ago.

And so, in 1999, he tracked that man down. Though Stewart had long believed the man was a simple cook at the Dixie Diner, he was in fact Ted Horn, the diner's owner.

"It's an amazing story," Horn said last week.

Horn, 88 years old now, retired and living in Tupelo, said he remembers the episode in 1971 clearly.

"He was a pitiful looking sight," he recalled of the young man who tried to pretend he'd lost his wallet.

Stewart returned the favor during his 1999 visit and gave Horn $10,000.

"I feel like I owe you my life," Stewart told him.

Through the years, Secret Santa's giving became legendary. He ventured beyond Kansas City, to New York after the terrorist attacks, to Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Diego, even to Jackson in 1998.

All along, Stewart estimates he gave away $1.3 million. His adventures always were chronicled in the local papers, his identity kept secret.

But for the last couple of years, he said, "the tabloids" have been trying to out him. They want to find out who he is, and go public with it.

He beat them to it. Last month, Stewart outed himself in the pages of his hometown paper, the Kansas City Star.

He also revealed that he has cancer of the esophagus. He's undergoing treatment, but his future is uncertain.

He'll be out there again this year, giving away cash. But after that, who knows?

The future of the organization he started, the Society Of Secret Santas, is certain, he said.

He said he's received more than 6,000 e-mails since he went public, and 2,800 people have signed up so far to be Secret Santas like him.

That, he said, is what his story is really about: inspiring other people to do the right thing. Just like Ted Horn did for him.

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