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Published: Wednesday, 12/19/2007

A holiday secret lives

SECRET Santa died early this year. We refer to Larry Stewart, the man who for 20 years anonymously handed out $100 bills during the holiday season, asking only that the recipient pass on the good turn by helping someone else. He died in January, but he will live on, thanks to the efforts of a new generation of Secret Santas.

Mr. Stewart's story was the stuff of which Christmas myths are made. Raised in poverty in Mississippi by his grandparents, a young Stewart was hungry, broke, and living in his car in 1971 when he decided to order a big breakfast at the Dixie Diner in Houston, Miss. His plan was to fake having lost his wallet when the bill came and hope for the best.

When the bill arrived and he fumbled for his wallet, Ted Horn, the owner of the diner came over, pretended to pick something off the floor, and handed the young man a $20 bill he'd palmed.

"You must have dropped this," Mr. Horn said.

Mr. Stewart paid for breakfast and had enough left over from the $20 to put gas in his car. Touched that his act of desperate deception, while seen through, had been met with kindness instead of a call to the police, he vowed to pass on that act of kindness when he could.

Eventually, Mr. Stewart made millions in cable TV and long-distance telephone service, and along the way he began giving away more and more money to all sorts of causes. He also started giving money to strangers, especially at Christmas.

He'd search for people who looked down on their luck, finding them in thrift shops, coin laundries, or driving beat-up cars, and give them money, asking only that they pass it on by doing something for someone else.

Along the way, he even returned a couple of times to the Dixie Diner, the first time to give Mr. Horn $10,000 and the second time, just a couple of years ago, to give the diner owner a pile of $100 bills stamped "Ted Horn" to distribute. In all, he guessed he'd given away $1.3 million at Christmas over the years.

Until last year, it was all done anonymously because Mr. Stewart saw from the beginning that it was about the giving, not the giver. But last year, facing imminent death from cancer, Mr. Stewart revealed his identity so he could publicly share his thoughts on the power of random acts of kindness.

After Christmas, as he lay dying in a hospital bed, he spoke to a friend, not about his illness or how unfair it was that, at 58, his life was ending, but about how much he would miss what he called his "sleigh rides."

That was when the friend, one of the few who knew Secret Santa's identity before that year, pledged to Mr. Stewart that the legend would live on, that he'd stamp his name on stacks of $100 bills and pass them out to needy people across the country.

A week later, Mr. Stewart was dead.

Now, the new Secret Santa is well into his first solo sleigh ride, beginning in Phoenix earlier this month and scheduled to visit cities from coast to coast before Christmas. Along the way he hopes to enlist others to join a Society of Secret Santas. And the Kansas City Star reported that at least three people already are Secret Santas in training.

In 1897, a little girl wrote to the New York Sun to ask if Santa Claus was real. We're happy to be able to report, in the words of the Sun's Francis Pharcellus Church that, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." His name was Larry Stewart.

Pass it on.



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