Tue, Nov 21, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Secret Santa reveals his identity at last

THE GUARDIAN , LOS ANGELES

For years the portly man dressed in a red tunic and sporting a large white beard has been delighting unsuspecting strangers with his munificence. But now Santa has been forced to hang up his sleigh bells and stay at home -- but not before revealing his true identity.

Over the last 26 years Larry Stewart, a 58-year-old businessman from Kansas City, Missouri, has given US$1.3 million to strangers he met in the street.

He started by handing out US$5 and US$10 bills to people who seemed down on their luck. With inflation and a rise in his own wealth -- he has made millions running a cable TV and long-distance telephone service -- the gifts rose to US$100 bills.

But Stewart always insisted on anonymity, never revealing his identity and earning him the nickname Secret Santa.

This spring, however, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, which has since spread to his liver. The US$16,000 monthly cost of the chemotherapy is not covered by his health insurance policy, and the treatment has left him debilitated.

So he has decided to reveal his identity in the hope that he might inspire someone else to take over his Santa duties.

Stewart still has a team of little helpers, who in recent years have given out US$100,000 traveling between Chicago and Kansas City and he has also trained four deputy Santas who this year will hand out US$65,000.

Stewart's generosity was born out of his own experience of poverty. In 1979 for the second year in succession he was fired from his job in the week before Christmas. But when he saw a shivering, roller-skating waitress at a drive-in restaurant, he realized that there were others worse off than him.

He gave her a US$20 bill. Touched by her response, Stewart went to the bank, withdrew US$200 and drove around Kansas looking for people to give it to -- and the Secret Santa myth was born.

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