Bruce native known as 'Secret Santa' dies

From Wire and Daily Journal Reports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Larry Stewart, a Bruce native who became known as Secret Santa for his habit of roaming the streets each December and anonymously handing money to people, died Friday. He was 58.

Stewart died from complications from esophageal cancer, said Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips, a longtime friend.

Stewart, who spent 26 years giving a total $1.3 million, gained international attention in November when he revealed himself as Secret Santa. He was diagnosed in April with cancer, and said he wanted to use his celebrity to inspire other people to take random kindness seriously.

“That's what we're here for,” Stewart said in a November interview, “to help other people out.”

Stewart, from the Kansas City suburb of Lee's Summit, 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 the second year in a row he had been fired the week before Christmas.

“It was cold and this carhop 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 said. He gave her $20 and told her to keep the change.

After that, Stewart hit the streets each December, handing out money, often $100 bills, sometimes two and three at a time. He also gave money to community causes in Kansas City and his hometown of Bruce.

Stewart said he was inspired by an act of kindness toward him at a small Houston restaurant in 1971.

Unemployed and homeless, a penniless Stewart pretended to have forgotten his wallet in a visit to the Dixie Diner. Ted Horn, who ran the restaurant, “found” $20 to cover the meal and gave the change to Stewart.

The memory of that kindness manifested itself almost 30 years later as Secret Santa. Stewart visited Horn, who now lives in Tupelo, to repay him for his kindness.

“It was 1999 when I found out about Secret Santa. That's when I first heard about it,” Horn said in December interview with the Chickasaw Journal & Times-Post in Houston. “Newspapers and TV stations called about the diner then, and he came, too. It was an amazing thing.”

Stewart visited Horn a number of times as Secret Santa, the first time in 1999. He presented Horn $10,000 in appreciation of the $20 gift in 1971. Horn gave much of that money away, after paying some medical expenses for his wife.

On a visit last year, Stewart gave Horn $1,000 to give away as he wished. Horn added $1,000 of his own money to the total giveaway that year.

“I tell everybody that it's amazing what one $20 bill has generated,” Horn said. “He's given away more than $1.3 million, and it's amazing that $20 can have that much effect. He's just a fine Christian man who enjoys giving.”