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Death didn't stop Secret Santa

New giver carries on tradition of giving $100 bills to strangers in Kansas City, Mo. A small act of kindness inspired the original Santa.

By Teresa Mears Dec 15, 2010 3:02PM

For years, it was Kansas City's favorite Christmas story: An anonymous man, dubbed the Secret Santa, would go around town and give $100 bills to complete strangers.

For 26 years, no one knew who the Secret Santa was. But in 2006, as he was dying from cancer, Larry Dean Stewart revealed his identity. He died weeks later, at age 58.

But Secret Santa didn't die with him. Tuesday, Secret Santa II, with the aid of a few "elves," handed out $10,000 to people in shelters, thrift stores and food pantries in Kansas City, Mo. Post continues after video.

Secret Santa II, who wore a fake white beard on his rounds this week, won't reveal his own name or financial circumstances. He expects to distribute about $40,000 this year.

"The recession, unemployment. This is the time you don't want to stop. You don't want to back off," he told The Associated Press.

AP reported:

Recipients included a police officer with terminal cancer, a homeless man pushing a rickety old shopping cart, an 81-year-old woman who had recently told her 27 grandchildren she wouldn't be able to afford any Christmas gifts, and Bernadette Turner, a 32-year-old unemployed mother of two.

Turner, whose children are 3 and 8, said she originally could afford only one gift for each child. But, after Secret Santa II and his elves handed her $300, she was overcome and expecting a better holiday.

Stewart, Kansas City's original Secret Santa, began his philanthropy in 1979. USA Today tells how he started:

Right before Christmas, he stopped at a drive-in in Independence, Mo., and ordered a hamburger and soft drink. He gave the carhop a $20 bill and said, "Keep the change."
"You're kidding," she said. "No, ma'am. Merry Christmas," he said. She started sobbing and said, "Sir, you have no idea what this means to me."
That felt so good, Stewart says, he went to the bank, got more cash and started giving it away. And his Secret Santa was born, although he doesn't disguise himself in full Claus regalia, sometimes opting just to wear something red.

Over the next 26 years, he gave away more than $1.3 million, money he earned as an entrepreneur.

He was inspired by an act of kindness done for him in 1971, when he was down and out and hadn't eaten for two days. You can (and should) read his whole story here.

While anyone would love for a $100 bill to rain down from the sky, Stewart's story also shows the power of a much smaller act of charity: the $20 he received from the restaurant owner when he was broke, the change from $20 he gave to a carhop that started his crusade.

Inspired by Stewart, Lynn Hinkle and her three teen sons went to a hotel and left $20 and $50 bills on maids' carts, USA Today reported. She sent an e-mail to Stewart, whose Secret Santa e-mail address became known before his name did. She wrote:

Thank you for the inspiration. This is a new tradition for our family, and one we will build upon year after year.

What's your holiday giving tradition?

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