This is an incredible, almost unbelievable story about a former homeless man. And yet it’s true.
This man later made a fortune and gave away $1.3 million of it to strangers in need. His name was Larry Stewart and if you’ve never heard of him, it’s because until late in his life, he handed out his money anonymously, often a hundred dollars at a time.
And when he finally did go public with his generosity, it was because he knew he didn’t have long to live and wanted to encourage us to “help other people out,” which he believed was the reason we are here.
Larry lived in Kansas City and at Christmas, he would walk over to people he’d never met, smile and wish them a Merry Christmas, as he’d hand them a $100 bill. They’d be stunned and grateful for the kindness of this “Secret Santa,” who would simply wish them well and walk away.
But Christmas aside, he handed out $100 bills all year long to people in need. However it was at Christmas time that he most enjoyed doing it.
Larry was born into poverty in Mississippi, and raised by his grandparents, whose home had no indoor plumbing and who heated bathwater on the stove. They lived on welfare.
Life was tough for Larry, who dropped out of college and got fired from various jobs until in 1971 when he lost his job, he was desperate.
Out of money, Larry lived in his broken-down car. After not eating for two days; he went into a Houston, Mississippi diner and had breakfast, savoring every bite. When the bill came, he didn’t know how he would pay it.
As the bill set on the table, he pretended he’d lost his wallet. Quietly watching, the owner of the diner walked over and said to him, “You must have dropped this,” as he put a $20 bill in Larry’s hand.
Deeply grateful and relieved, Larry paid his bill, pushed his car to a gas station and he left the community. But he promised himself he would never forget this kindness and if ever he could, he would do the same for others.
Because he had family in Kansas City, Larry went there. Over time, he got married and later he decided to start his own company, with his father-in-law as his major investor. Unfortunately, the firm went under and Larry couldn’t pay his bills.
Deeply depressed, he thought: “I was a failure in business, I was a failure as a husband, I was a failure as a father.”
In despair, he got a handgun, jumped into his car and seriously considered robbing a store. But Larry got control of himself and drove home, not knowing what to do next. It was then his brother-in-law called and provided money to get him through this predicament.
A week before the next Christmas, Larry lost his job. And in the following year, 1979, he got fired from another job, also a week before Christmas.
Feeling sorry for himself, Larry sat in his car in a drive-in restaurant. “It was cold and this carhop didn’t have on a very big jacket, and I thought to myself, ‘I think I got it bad,’ Larry said. “She’s out there in this cold making nickels and dimes.”
To pay his small tab, Larry gave her a $20 bill and told her to keep the change. After that he gave away money every Christmas to those in need.
Eventually in business, fate smiled upon Larry when he started a company that hit big. He made his fortune in cable television and long-distance telephone service.
Now a wealthy man, Larry became a philanthropist to many causes. The ALS Foundation, The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, The Salvation Army, The National Paralysis Foundation and the list goes on.
And he’d personally help strangers in need as he’d walk into thrift shops, quickie marts, fast food restaurants and coin laundries, or simply walk down the street and see them. Astonished, people would scream with joy, some would thank the Lord, others would cry, but everyone would have a kind word for Larry.
Occasionally he’d bring the media with him but only if they would not identify him. It was they who began calling Larry the “Secret Santa.”
Larry spread his giving well beyond Kansas City. After 9/11, he went to New York City. The next year, he went to Washington, D.C. to quietly help after the rampage of the serial snipers. In 2003, he went to San Diego following the massive destruction from wild fires.
In 2004, Larry went to Florida after three hurricanes left thousands of people homeless and in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast, he returned to Mississippi, including Houston, Miss.
There, Larry got together with the owner of the diner, Ted Horn, who had quietly helped him so long ago. In a prior visit, he had presented Ted with $10,000. This time, he gave Ted hundred dollar bills to distribute and Ted added hundred dollar bills from his own savings. They stamped “Ted Horn” on them and gave them away to needy people.
It was a very Merry Christmas for a lot of grateful people
But then in April 2006, 58-year-old Larry was diagnosed with esophagus cancer and it had spread to his liver. It would be terminal.
So what did Larry do? Made it a point in 2006 to giveaway at least $100,000. And he finally went public in November to encourage other potential “Secret Santas” to randomly hand out money to those in need as well.
Prior to his passing in January, 2007 Larry Stewart did something else as well. He “trained” four more Secret Santas and they gave away another $65,000 to the needy in 2006. And in 2007, four more Secret Santas intend to giveaway $70,000.
Success Tip of the Week:
The next time you see someone in need, perhaps you could walk them to a restaurant and buy them a meal. Or keep an extra blanket in the trunk of your car so on cold nights; you can make a gift to a homeless person of what will keep him or her a little warmer.
Editor’s Note: The quotations in this story are from the Associated Press [11/16/06, 1/13/07]. For more details, please see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15751409/.
In the next KazanToday:
How one dollar made a wonderful difference in a child’s life.