Remembering the First ‘Secret Santa’ of Kansas City

CJ Coombs
Photo Credit: Steve Hartman, CBS News (Dec. 15, 2016).

The late Philanthropist Larry Stewart would give away hundreds at Christmastime.

Larry Stewart was one of the most generous men who came to be known as the Secret Santa of Kansas City. I remember hearing about him every Christmas through the years. He would always make the news going around handing out $100 bills to people he felt really needed it.

Seeing the reaction of people was so heartwarming. He inspired people with intent.

Larry wasn’t always rich. He was an American Philanthropist who used to be very poor.

He started a company called Network Communications in which independent sales agents from this company would enroll customers to Sprint’s long-distance service. In 1996, Sprint was ordered by an arbitration panel to pay Network’s sales agents $60.9 million for the commission that it owed. Out of that, Larry received $5.2 million.

When Larry was in Houston, Mississippi back in 1971, when he didn’t have a lot, he received free breakfast from the owner of Dixie Diner, Ted Horn. Allegedly Horn influenced Larry because of that free breakfast.

For two years, 1978 and 1979, he lost his job before Christmas. One day Larry was in a restaurant on a day it was cold outside and probably feeling a little sorry for himself. He saw a carhop that was serving cars outside in the cold.

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.’

Larry gave her some change from $20. The carhop started crying and told him that he had no idea what that meant to her.

Larry also gave donated money to charities in Kansas City and his hometown of Bruce, Mississippi. He also liked to hand out cash to people in need. He even visited Ted Horn, the owner of the Dixie Diner, who had helped him when he was down and out, only this time Larry gave Horn $10,000.

From 1979 through 2006, he was an anonymous giver. He would let reporters go with him when he passed out money as long as they promised not to divulge his identity. Larry would walk into places like diners and laundromats to surprise people he felt needed help.

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. (Source.)

Larry remained anonymous until 2006

In 2006, Larry was diagnosed with esophageal cancer which ultimately took his life the following year. Some believed that the reason he let people know his identity was due to having cancer. He indicated in an interview on a radio show that his identity was going to be revealed by a tabloid and he wished to share his story before the tabloid did. When he revealed his identity, he said it had nothing to do with his having cancer.

Larry also went to other cities to share his giving inspiration including New York City after 9/11 in 2001, Washington D.C., and Florida. He also went to Mississippi in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. You can imagine how his influence was key to inspiring others to give to.

After Larry became ill, he started a plan of training others to be Secret Santas. They were set up in 2006 to give out $65,000 that holiday season.

Larry’s efforts were both supported and recognized by other celebrities through the years.

Sadly, Larry died at the young age of 58 on January 12, 2007. Over the years, though, he has been an inspiration to other people to become a secret Santa.

On January 13, 2007, the day after he died, he received posthumously the “Buck O’Neil Award Legacy.” Larry belonged to several programs and organizations. All comments posted in his obituary are still available to read.

In 2014, an anonymous wealthy businessman, carrying on Stewart’s tradition, “deputized officers in the Jackson County sheriff’s office to hand out $100.”

Fast forward to secret Santa in 2021

This year, the tradition of secret Santa continued while he gave out instructions to Kansas City, Kansas police officers.

‘Pick your targets carefully,’ the man told the officers while doling out $300 in cash. ‘What we do makes a difference.’

This wealthy businessman doesn’t want to be known by any other name but Secret Santa. He wants to spread hope like giving a mom with three children $800 because she couldn’t afford food.

‘My whole life I’ve heard the story about you,’ she said through tears.

She wasn’t the only recipient of $800. Secret Santa wants to remind people it’s the season of giving and that an act of kindness might inspire others to spread the kindness.

Another anonymous donor

A Secret Santa donated $10,000 to police in Shawnee, Kansas to go out and give $100 bills to people in need. A local news channel rode with one of the officers to experience this giving.

The police officer pulled over a woman who was probably thinking she was going to get a ticket. Instead, she received $100.

With the police officers getting into the spirit of giving, it also allows them to connect with the community.

The police department makes a scrapbook that shows the stories of the effects of the donations for people, and they give this scrapbook to Secret Santa.

Ted Horn inspired Larry Stewart

Larry and his predecessor have probably given away more than $2 million.

Remember how Ted Horn from the Dixie Diner had helped Larry? He actually inspired Larry. Horn passed away in 2009, two years after Larry died.

And it started with that $20 that Horn gave Larry. And even at that time, Larry had made up his mind that he would help others if he ever made a lot of money.

The current Secret Santa who was a good friend to Larry shared this —

‘Larry was hospitalized and I went up to visit him at night … moonlight shining in, kind of surreal … so I asked Larry, ‘Do you have any regrets?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘I just wish I could have helped more people,’ Secret Santa said.

Even though at that time, Larry had probably already given away $1 million, he wanted to do more. And that’s when his friend took over the tradition of Secret Santa.

When Larry died, he was a resident of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. He was an inspiration to people who have heard his story and caught Secret Santa giving away those $100 to people on camera.

Kindness, itself, is free. The act of giving is infectious. It should be noted that when Larry was Secret Santa, he didn’t just spread his cheer around Christmas, he also would help people during the year.

Be inspired to be a giver to those in need.

Sources: Wikipedia; Dec. 22, 2021; Dec. 16, 2021; CBS News

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO

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