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Free Citizen

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

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Secret Santa RIP

LARRY STEWART, 1948-2007 | Life that transformed others comes to an end

By LYNN FRANEY
The Kansas City Star

Larry Stewart, who rose from poverty to wealth and became Kansas City’s Secret Santa, handing out crisp $100 bills to people in need at Christmastime, died Friday [Jan.12].

Stewart, 58, had fought cancer of the esophagus since April. He died around 1:50 p.m. at St. Luke’s Hospital.

The Lee’s Summit man didn’t let his illness keep him from one last spending spree this Christmas season, giving away a total of $100,000 to strangers who responded with hugs, tears and whoops of joy.

Just before Thanksgiving, Stewart went public with his identity for the first time in his 26 years as Secret Santa.

He knew this could be his last “sleigh ride” and wanted to tell people how, years ago, a kind diner owner slipped him $20 when Stewart was homeless and hungry. That gesture inspired him years later to give away his own money.

“I know Larry’s on the best sleigh ride now,” said friend Ray Wynn, a Kansas City fire captain who accompanied Stewart on his missions.

Sharing out of love with someone, especially a stranger, was what Stewart loved doing most of all. All told, he handed out more than $1.3 million, on top of numerous donations to charities.

Stewart had hoped going public would inspire more selfless giving by others. It could be $100 or $5, cookies for a neighbor or a favor for someone who was down.

His story zipped around the world.

E-mailed expressions of love and prayers poured in, along with cards offering best wishes. People told him how his life story — emerging from poverty in [Calhoun County] Mississippi to make millions in telecommunications while never forgetting his roots — gave them hope for changing their own lives.

Some vowed to become Secret Santas in their own way.

One e-mail came from a 15-year-old boy, and Stewart passed it along to friends with the note, “Really touched me.”

It read:

"Your story is really inspiring If i ever can help someone that looks poor or needs help, i’ll think: 'what would larry do?' Now i’m just a little kid thats 15 years old, but i believe anyone can help the world … If i ever can do something for you, or the world, i’ll directly do it. Thanks for helping the world. I believe there is a god in all of us, but you are the real proof of that. Thanks."

Beyond Christmas

His kindness meant the world to people lucky enough to get a $100 bill — or two or three — handed to them as they shopped in a thrift store for cheap Christmas presents, or as they used their last $50 for groceries for their family.

They often wiped away tears, thanked him and said he had no idea how much joy his gift had given them.

“He’s been my angel. God sent me an angel,” said Bonnie Gooch, a Town Topic cook whom Stewart surprised with cash two years in a row. “I truly love the man.”

Nila Ridings of Overland Park remembers Stewart giving $100 bills to her and two other flight attendants on a flight from New York to Kansas City in December 2001. He was returning from spreading Secret Santa joy in Manhattan after the terrorist attacks.

One flight attendant struggled as a single mom and had just lost wages while she was hospitalized. The surprise $100 gift meant she could buy her daughter Christmas presents.

The memory still makes Ridings cry.

“He had the kind of heart I wish everybody had,” Ridings said Friday.

Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips would drive Stewart around Kansas City, or other cities, to give out money. Phillips wanted to make sure the man in the red shirt and white overalls stayed safe.

Stewart’s openness to all he met changed Wynn’s life.

He set an example that Wynn tries to follow: “Don’t pass judgment on somebody because of what they’re wearing or what kind of mood they’re in. Be passionate toward people regardless of their stature.”

His friends, his family and all those moved by the Secret Santa story “took a big hit today,” Wynn said.

But he added, “Don’t be sad that he’s gone. Be thankful that we had him.”

The leaders of social service agencies appreciated Stewart’s tireless fundraising and volunteer efforts on their behalf.

If an organization needed people for a project, Stewart would get on the phone and rope his buddies into helping.

If you had Stewart in your corner, said former Kansas City police chief Rick Easley, you were blessed.

Stewart helped people he encountered any time, not just at Christmas.

His friend Gene Dooley, president of the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, remembers when the two were driving on Interstate 70 and stopped at a gas station in Oak Grove. Stewart noticed a girl, probably about 10, counting out change to pay for a snack.

Stewart slipped the clerk a $20 bill, softly said, “Take care of that,” and headed out the door.

Other times, when Stewart rode in a cab, he might chat with the immigrant driver and wind up giving him a $300 tip.

“You would never know his wealth,” Dooley recalled. “You would only know his heart.”

His own tears of joy

Among the wealthy men and celebrities he shared many a charity golf game with, Stewart was known as a cutup, always playing practical jokes.

He dabbled in songwriting, penning ditties about friends like Buck O’Neil. He enjoyed time with his children.

After Stewart went public with his life story, he enjoyed reading the e-mails of support. He especially liked hearing from people starting their own family tradition of giving to strangers at Christmas.

The flood of prayers overwhelmed him, he told The Star last month.

“This has just completely caught me off guard,” he said, sobbing. “It’s heartwarming. The tears that I have are tears of joy, and I just want everybody to know that I am deeply grateful.

“This was never intended to be about me. I’m just doing what the Lord is directing me to do. I’m just a pair of hands and feet. He’s using me. He’s lighted my path. … Part of my daily prayer was, ‘Lord, let me be a better servant.’ I had no idea this is what He had in mind, but I’m happy.”

He heard from people from his past, people he’d lost track of, who thanked him for the goodness he had spread.

One was his high school principal, Leon Wilson, who wrote:

"The Secret Santa story simply blows me away and warms my heart as few things have.

"Your legacy will live on for many years, and I count myself fortunate to have touched your life as a youngster. And how blessed I feel now to know of the great mission you have carried on in secret these many years.

"Your classmates and I are extremely proud of you, and our prayer is that the Lord will find it in His will to heal you. Regardless, I know that what you have done was done in His name, and for His glory. He has a rich reward awaiting you in eternity. …

"May God bless, and may the work you have begun, and advanced so far, continue when you are no longer able to do it."

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Go to KansasCity.com for an audio slide show, to read previous stories and to sign a guest book.

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To reach Lynn Franey, call (816) 234-4927 or send e-mail to lfraney@kcstar.com.

Kansas City Star

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