You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Kansas City is beautiful at Christmas. Our Country Club Plaza shopping district is covered with beautiful white lights from one end of the plaza to the other. The simple magnificence of the mayor’s Christmas tree reminds us of the strong family values and generous community spirit that make KC a place we want to stay even after our children are gone. And neighbors festively decorate their homes and extend the cheer to the outside of their houses as a way of inviting everyone to be a part of their Christmas,
But perhaps the best example of Kansas City’s Christmas splendor and generous spirit can be found in the legacy Larry Dean Stewart, the original Secret Santa, left for all of us.
Mr. Stewart, who died two years ago from cancer, created the mission and defined the role of Secret Santa’s worldwide. In fact, the Society of Secret Santas is built upon the tradition Larry Stewart established in Kansas City.
In 26 years, Mr. Stewart gave away 1.6 million dollars – $100 dollars at-a-time. How he started this tradition is just as inspiring as his kindness and philanthropy.
The Spirit is Born
Larry Dean Stewart’s story is truly a rags to riches one. After college, and with no job, Mr. Stewart was living out of his car in Houston, Texas. During a particularly tough stretch, he had not eaten a meal in over eight days. Hungry and tired, he walked into a diner without having the means to pay.
When the check arrived, he acted as though he had forgotten his wallet. The owner, fully aware of what was really happening, walked over to Larry Stewart and said, “You must have dropped this,” as he handed him a $20 dollar bill.
The years that followed only improved marginally for Mr. Stewart. Even though he was able to find work, in December of 1979 he was fired. This was the second year in a row he was fired the week before Christmas.
Driving home to deliver the news to his family, he stopped at a drive-in restaurant to grab a bite to eat and collect his thoughts. The carhop who served him was not wearing a coat. After questioning her, Mr. Stewart found out she did not have the extra money to buy a coat for herself. Remembering the diner owner who so graciously helped him years before, he paid for the two dollar meal with a $20 dollar bill and told her to keep the change. His Secret Santa spirit was born on that day.
After contemplating his next move, Mr. Stewart decided to move to Kansas City because of a cousin who lived there indicated good opportunities could be found. He indeed found opportunity. Larry Stewart made millions in the cable television and long-distance telephone services.
Mr. Stewart not only wanted to help people financially, he wanted to help them emotionally, too. His motivation for handing out $100 bills to the needy was to reinforce their self-worth and to show unconditional love to some folks who perhaps thought the world had stopped loving them. He wasn’t just handing out money; he was also handing out hope and dignity.
The compassion shared from one spontaneous random act of kindness is elevating, priceless and not easily explained. It is an instant connection between souls that can change a life forever. – Secret Santa World
He would stand outside of the coin laundries, thrift stores, and barber shops and, of course, the diners in Kansas City. He did all of this while keeping his real identity a secret. To him, it wasn’t important to receive recognition, it was only important to help.
Soon Mr. Stewart’s benevolent reach extended beyond Kansas City. He travelled to New York City the Christmas after 9-11; he visited Washington D.C. in December, 2002 after the serial snipers had terrorized that city just months earlier; and he was in Mississippi the Christmas after Hurricane Katrina.
Continuing the Legacy
His life and actions inspired the creation of the Society of Secret Santas. This organization is committed to keeping his tradition and spirit alive.
Secret Santas must possess and share the following characteristics and values (from http://www.secretsantaworld.net/):
- Anonymity: They do not draw attention to themselves and strive to protect their personal identity and those of other Secret Santas.
- Leadership: They lead by example.
- Humility: Through belief in the human spirit, they share their wealth in a humble, selfless way.
- Compassion: Through random acts of kindness, they tap into the human spirit and try to create in the recipient hope and a belief that they are worthy of unconditional love.
- Humor: They would rather lose every dime they ever made than lose their sense of humor.
- Friendship: They value their association with people of like mind and character.
If you think about, these are characteristics we should consider revealing each day. We don’t need to be Secret Santas and we don’t need to wait until Christmas to share our generosity and show unanticipated kindness to others.
Something tells me Larry Dean Stewart probably felt the same way.