December 21, 2006, - 12:48 pm
By Debbie Schlussel
We constantly hear about the “generosity” of celebs like Oprah and Bono (well, he’s generous with OUR tax money, not his money). The reason we hear about it is that they really aren’t generous. They’re merely interested in hyping their image.
But the truly generous Americans are not celebrities with slick PR. They’re modest, unknown Americans you never hear about. Earlier this year, we wrote about Buffalo’s late Waldemar Kaminski, who lived modestly and quietly gave millions to the poor. Today, USA Today’s Nanci Hellmich brings us the inspiring story of a truly generous, modest American–real-life Santa, Larry Stewart.
Stewart embodies everything that’s great about America. Until now, an anonymous donor of over $1.3 million in cash to various poor, homeless, and unfortunate Americans, Stewart was a poor guy who arose from poverty to become a millionaire and wanted to give something back because G-d and others helped him when he was homeless, hungry, and couldn’t afford to pay for a meal at a diner.
Stewart is the Secret Santa Claus you’ve been reading about for years, anonymously giving $100 bills anonymously to Kansas City, Missouri residents. He never wanted his name to be known, but a tabloid was about to out his identity, and he beat them to it.
Sadly, Stewart has esophageal cancer that has metastazised to his liver. He’s being treated at Houston’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Check out Stewart’s Secret Santa site. It features a book written about his deeds by a Kansas City reporter.
Here are some excerpts from this VERY INSPIRING story:
Stewart carefully guarded his identity for years; only his family and a few close friends knew the truth. USA TODAY profiled him in a front-page story in 2001 but did not publish his name. That holiday season, he handed out $25,000 in $100 bills to New Yorkers who were reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
Over the years, Stewart estimates, he has given away $1.3 million. He says he has been amply rewarded in return.
“I see the smiles and looks of hopelessness turn to looks of hope in an instant,” he says. “After all, isn’t that what we were put here on Earth for – to help one another?”
But now his secret is out. Contrary to published reports, Stewart says, he didn’t reveal his identity because he is sick. He has esophageal cancer that has metastasized to his liver. He is being treated at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Instead, Stewart says, he went public when it became apparent a tabloid newspaper was going to reveal his name. Now he hopes his story will inspire others to become Secret Santas.
Although he’s a millionaire now, Stewart says he understands the pain of poverty. He was reared by his grandparents in the small town of Bruce, Miss. They could barely afford to feed and clothe him.
In the winter of 1971, Stewart was working as a door-to-door salesman in the little town of Houston, Miss. After the company he was working for went out of business, he ran out of money. He hadn’t eaten for almost two days when he went to the Dixie Diner and ordered a big breakfast, then acted as if he had lost his wallet.
Ted Horn, the owner of the diner, who also was the waiter and cook, came over near the stool where Stewart had been sitting and picked up a $20 bill off the floor. “Son, you must have dropped this,” he said. “It was like a fortune to me,” Stewart says. “I said to myself, ‘Thank you, Lord.’ ”
He paid for the breakfast, left a tip, pushed his car to a gas station and left town. Then it dawned on him: Nobody had dropped the money, but Horn had helped him out in a way that wouldn’t embarrass him. “Right then, I just made a promise. I said, ‘Lord, if you ever put me in a position to help other people, I will do it.’ ”
Eventually he moved to Kansas City, where he made money first in cable television, then with his own long-distance telephone company. He was married in the early 1970s and has adult children. (To protect their privacy, he is reluctant to discuss his family members.)
Stewart started helping the less fortunate in 1979. 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.
He has no strict criteria for who receives the money. He sometimes works with social service agencies, or he has police officers and firefighters help him identify people who have been devastated by a fire or other calamity and gives the victims $1,000 or more. But much of the money he gives away is handed to people he sees on the street, in diners, Laundromats, pawnshops and fast-food places.
There are no tax breaks for the way he distributes his money. Besides helping people in Kansas City, he has traveled to other areas of the country, including the Washington, D.C., area, Chicago and communities in California, Florida and Mississippi.
Stewart never forgot the diner owner. In December 1999, he tracked down Horn in Tupelo, Miss., and gave him a bank envelope with $10,000 in it. Horn opened it and said, “Oh, my Lord. You don’t have to do this.” He tried to hand it back, but Stewart said, “No, sir, I’ve come to pay you back.”
Horn, 88, says about all this: “It’s an amazing story. He’s the best. He’s a Christian man. He enjoys giving away that money.”
Tom Phillips, the sheriff of Jackson County, Mo., who has been accompanying Stewart on his holiday rounds for 17 years, agrees. “The best part about Larry is, he is giving from his heart. He is doing it to see the smiles on people’s faces.” . . .
Stewart isn’t hanging up his Santa gear yet. He was doling out money in Kansas City on Tuesday and Wednesday. He’ll be giving away $100,000 before Christmas. And he’s working with four newly trained Secret Santas, who are handing out a total of $75,000 of their own money.
Before he started this role as a Secret Santa, Stewart says, “I had not found my purpose. Part of my daily prayer was, ‘Lord lift me up and let me be a better witness to you and for you and somehow reach more people.’ I had no idea this is what He had in mind.”
Read the whole heart-warming article.
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