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Archive for Monday, February 12, 2007

Memorial honors ‘Secret Santa’

February 12, 2007

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— Hundreds of people turned out to remember Kansas City's "Secret Santa" at a public memorial celebration of his life.

Larry Stewart, a businessman from the nearby suburb of Lee's Summit, gave out more than $1.3 million - most of it in the form of crisp, new $100 bills - over 27 years. He also donated time and money to numerous charities.

Besides his "sleigh rides" in the Kansas City area, he also made Christmas season visits to New York, California, Florida and Illinois over the years. Stewart kept his identity a carefully guarded secret until November 2006, when he revealed that he was fighting esophageal cancer.

He died Jan. 12 at age 58.

Berta Smith, one of about 400 people attending Saturday's service at Unity Temple, remembered meeting Stewart on Dec. 20, shortly before his death. He gave her an award for her battle against cancer, along with $3,000 and assistance in getting treatments.

"It was a pleasure to meet him," Smith said, "and it will be an everlasting one from this day forward."

Stewart enjoyed practical jokes and funny stories, Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips said. "His humor made the worst day go away," said Phillips, who was Stewart's close friend and provided security on the sleigh rides.

Joe Stewart, Secret Santa's son, said his father treated people equally, no matter their race, religion or income.

And Larry Stewart's other son, John, urged people to carry on his father's work in any way they could - perhaps, he said, by leaving a $5 tip on a $2 cup of coffee, as his father would sometimes do.

"Those habits become character," John Stewart said. "They became my dad's character."

Stewart also trained four successors, each of whom carried on his tradition of anonymity. Those four gave out about $65,000 over the last Christmas season.

Others can give to Secret Santa Foundation Fund has been established at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The foundation will make grants to social service agencies, if they promise to pass the money directly on to poor families.

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