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US "Secret Santa" spreads money and hope

Written by: Staff

KANSAS CITY, Mo, Nov 22 (Reuters) He's known as the ''Secret Santa,'' a white-haired man in a red flannel shirt who gives no name or explanation as he stuffs 100 dollar or more into a stranger's hand.

He's given a couple of hundred to a homeless woman, a little more to a mother of two stranded at a bus station, 1,000 dollar to an elderly man in a tattered sweater and 5,000 dollar to the widow of a fallen firefighter.

The smallest gift was 5 dollar, given 26 years ago. The largest gift was 10,000 dollar, in 1999. In all, the man who has traveled the United States each holiday season to spread some of his wealth estimates he has handed out about 1.3 dollar million.

''We are all supposed to share our blessings. This is just one way,'' said 58-year-old Larry Stewart, who is giving away money to fulfill a pledge he made in 1971, when he was hungry and homeless and a stranger gave him 20 dollar.

Now a millionaire through investments in cable and telecommunications, Stewart said he has never forgotten how ''it feels to be hopeless.'' He wants his donations to both help people who appear to be needy, and help spread a sense of hope and faith in humanity.

SANTAS IN TRAINING For years Stewart has done his giving in disguise. Clad in red and white, with a red cap atop snowy white hair, he found ''targets'' as he calls them, on discreet sweeps through cities across America. He traveled to New York City after the attacks of Sept 11, 2001; to Washington, D C, after a series of sniper shootings in 2002; and to Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Over the years, friends have joined in the mission, driving him up and down city streets, visiting bus stations, laundromats and thrift stores and then helping him make quick getaways.

Stewart said he had hoped to stay anonymous. But after being diagnosed in April with advanced cancer in his esophagus and liver, he started to share his story, hoping others will pick up the task as he starts a 13th round of chemotherapy in January.

He has four ''Santas in training,'' who will help him give away 165,000 dollar this December, with the first stop in Chicago.

He has also set up a ''society of Secret Santas'' (http://www.secretsantausa.com/), whose members must pledge to commit at least one ''random act of kindness.'' More than 2,700 people had joined the society within two days of Stewart announcing his goal of encouraging other to give.

Tom Phillips, the sheriff of Jackson County, Missouri, started accompanying Stewart on his Secret Santa rounds several years ago.

''At first I was, like, 'Yeah, right, this guy must be nuts,''' Phillips said. ''But by the end of the first day I was nearly in tears.'' A LITTLE PRAYER Stewart grew up in Bruce, Mississippi, raised by grandparents who survived on 33 dollar a month, welfare and charitable donations.

He struggled well into adulthood, working as a salesman and bouncing between towns and jobs.

In 1971, unemployed and living in his car, Stewart ordered and ate a breakfast he knew he couldn't pay for in a small-town Mississippi diner. He pretended to have lost his wallet, but the restaurant's owner came around the counter, bent toward the floor and then leaned into Stewart, extending a 20 dollar bill.

''He said you must have dropped this,'' Stewart recalled. ''That was my ticket out. I said a little prayer and made a promise to God to find a way to pay it back.'' Susan Tvedten, a Kansas City mother and widow, first met Stewart on Christmas Eve in 1999, just days after her husband, Kansas City Fire Department Battalion Chief John Tvedten, died fighting a fire.

Stewart, who serves on the board of the Kansas City Crime Commission, had heard of the tragedy and showed up at her door with condolences and ,000 dollar.

''He is a very special,'' Tvedten said. ''He wants to help people. That makes a difference. My hope too is that at one point I will be able to pay it forward... pass it on to other people.'' And passing it on is the point, according to Stewart, who lives in Lee's Summit, a suburb of Kansas City.

''This has never been about me,'' he said. ''This is about the kind of giving, random and without the expectation of anything back... that can change a person.'' REUTERS SSC VV0907

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