The Original Secret Santa

When I put together my plans for WorkSaveLive, my goal was to get the site launched by early November so that I could write about a few things in particular:

  • Christmas and buying gifts – I talked about Saving Money on Black Friday a few weeks ago, and I’ll have a post next week that is dedicated to Christmas and buying presents.
  • Giving – which brings me to today’s post: The Original Secret Santa

While there are countless stories about giving that deserve to be recognized, the story about the Original Secret Santa had a distinct impact on my view of giving. My hope today is that Larry Stewart’s story will change something within you as well, and show you just how great of a blessing giving can be.

In today’s world, it’s no longer common to buy a gift, keep the contents secret, and anticipate the recipient’s reaction as Christmas approaches. Rather today we have lists, requests, and expectations. We have name drawings, dissapointment, and gift receipts taped to boxes expecting to be used. We no longer antipicate the reaction our gift has; we anticipate what we’re going to receive. Long has been lost the true gift of giving. When we do give today, many of us give because of tax returns, obligations, guilt, and for no other reason than it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Larry Stewart’s story brings an entirely different principle to light. A principle that has long been forgotten in this country:

Giving to people that truly are in need, and giving without the recognition that so many of us desperately desire.

Secret Santa

Every Christmas at my childhood elementary school we were asked to draw a name from a bucket. We were then supposed to buy a gift for whoever we drew, and more importantly, we were supposed to keep our identity secret.

While some people bought prank gifts, I was the unfortunate recipient of a very practical and factual mindset. It still curses me to this day. So I got to know the person I was supposed to buy a gift for, and then tried to buy them something that they really wanted!

My teachers always called this annual event, “Secret Santa.”

What I didn’t know as a child, and what I didn’t find out until a couple of years ago, was that this awesome “Secret Santa” idea became extremely popular because of one man.

A homeless man named Larry Stewart.

The Original

During the holiday seasons over a span of 27 years, Larry Stewart handed out approximately $1.3 million in cash to people in Kansas City and throughout other parts of the country.

As his anonymous giving increased in the 80s and 90s, the legend/story of the “secret santa” grew and spread across the nation.

He never had a real recipe for determining who to give to: he’d give to the homeless, security guards, restaurant patrons, and even to the attendants at fast food drive-thrus.

He appeared on the The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1995, disguised, so he could keep his identity secret.

In 2001, after 9-11, he walked the streets of New York City and passed out $25,000 to victims of the terrorist attacks; then a few days later went home to Kansas City and gave away another $25,000…just for the sake of it.

As Larry put it:

I see the smiles and looks of hopelessness turn to looks of hope in an instant…After all, isn’t that what we were put here on Earth for — to help one another?

Where His Legend Began

Shortly after losing his first job out of college, Larry visited Dixie Diner in Houston, Mississippi. He was broke and homeless. Despite knowing that he couldn’t afford to eat, Larry sat down and ordered a large breakfast. When it was time to pay the bill, Larry pretended that he had lost his wallet.

A cook approached Larry, handed him a $20 bill and said, “Son, you must have dropped this.”

Larry accepted the money, and thanked the man for his kindness.

At that moment Larry made a promise to God: “if you ever put me in a position to help other people, I will do it.”

After paying his bill and leaving a tip, Larry pushed his car to the gas station and put in enough gas to get to Kansas City, where he arrived with $18 to his name.

About 8 years after his arrival, Larry finally began making some decent money. A couple of weeks before Christmas in 1979, he visited a local drive-in restaurant and noticed the waitress didn’t have a jacket. He paid with a $20 bill and told the lady to keep the change.

Larry recalls that the waitress’ face began to tremble and tears rolled down her cheeks. “Sir,” she said, “you have no idea what this means to me.”

At that moment Larry remembered his promise to God. With $600 in his bank account, Larry withdrew $200 of it and drove around Kansas City looking for people to help.

Over the years Larry’s business grew and he became extraordinarily successful, but that never changed Larry…it simply made him more of who he was.

The $5 and $10 bills that he passed out in 1979 eventually turned into $100s. And those $100s turned to $1,000s.


Larry never forgot the man that originally helped him when he was in dire need.

In 1999, Larry traveled back to Mississippi where he tracked down the cook (and owner) of the restaurant, Ted Horn. Larry told Ted that “I’ve come to pay you back” and handed him an envelope with $10,000 in it.

Identity Revealed

Over the years, Larry was able to give millions of dollars away without ever having his identity known or revealed. Only a few very close friends and family knew.

He gave for the sake of giving…for the sake of helping.

He gave without being able to claim any of the gifts as a tax deduction.

Even more impressively, he gave millions of dollars without seeking the attention and recognition that so many of us secretly crave every year.

While giving anonymously still happens to this day, the real question is…would you?

Finally in early 2006, a local newspaper discovered that Larry had been diagnosed with cancer and was given little chance to live. To prevent the newspaper from telling his story first, Larry finally revealed his identity. He passed in January of 2007.

I hope that you find somebody in need this year and are willing to help. Just for the sake of it.

Give your time, your knowledge, and/or your financial resources (amount doesn’t matter).

…there are no reasons why you can’t. No excuses. If you never make it a point to give, you never will.

Provide Hope. Inspire Change.

About the Author

By , on Dec 5, 2011
Andy Tenton
Andy is a 30-something New Yorker who turned his financial life around. He took charge of his finances, got out of debt, and is now working his way toward financial success. He is the publisher of

How to Become Rich e-Course

Budgeting 101


  1. Peter says:

    Wow, awesome story! I hadn’t heard that one before, it actually gave me chills -the power of love and giving! Thanks for sharing it!

    • Andy says:

      Thanks Peter! The only reason I ever heard of it was because I moved to Kansas City; I have a feeling that not many people outside of here know about it. Glad I could pass it along!

  2. Riley says:

    I really love this story. No matter how many times you read it, it always warms the heart!

    • Andy says:

      It is awesome isn’t it? This type of giving seems so distant from a majority of people’s mind these days. It makes it even better that he started it all in KC! Too bad he wasn’t a Jayhawk too. 😉

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