Spirit of Christmas
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009
8/15/10 at 9:09 AM
A white van stops at the curb with two motorcycle cops close behind and a patrol car parked across the street.
Within seconds, TV cameras are rushing down the block toward Amy Swift, shining lights in her bewildered eyes and poking microphones toward her gaping mouth.
Waiting for a bus Wednesday morning near Third Street and Lewis Avenue, Swift suddenly finds herself holding a crisp $100 bill. And the man who gave it to her disappears as quickly as he came, taking the police escort with him.
Swift plans to use the money to fill some prescriptions.
"I couldn't afford antibiotics, but now I can," she says, wiping away tears. "But I don't get it. Who was that? What's going on?"
The New Secret Santa has come to Tulsa.
'Must've dropped this'
In 1971, a homeless man named Larry Stewart ordered a big breakfast at the Dixie Diner in Houston, Miss.
When it came time to pay, he pretended to have forgotten his wallet. But a kind stranger pretended to pick up a $20 bill from beneath Stewart's chair.
"Here, you must've dropped this."
Stewart promised to repay the favor someday by doing a good deed for someone else. And he remembered that promise eight years later when he ordered lunch from a drive-in and noticed the car-hop shivering in the Christmastime weather.
She cried when Stewart told her to keep the change from a $20 bill. And Stewart got such a thrill from it that he drove to a bank and withdrew more cash to give away.
After that, he made it a yearly Christmas tradition to hand out money to random people on the streets of Kansas City, Mo. But $20 bills turned into $100 bills after he struck it rich.
Dubbed the "Secret Santa" by the Kansas City press, Stewart never allowed his name to be published until shortly before he died in 2007. By then, he had given away more than $1.3 million.
'Would this help?'
Realizing she can't afford everything in the shopping basket, Ellen Stanley is putting dresses back on the rack Monday at a thrift store near 21st Street and Sheridan Road.
Then she turns around to see a gray-haired man wearing a red pullover and a matching red beret.
"Would this help you any?" he says as he offers a $100 bill.
"Would this help you even more?" he takes another bill out of his pocket.
Crying, Stanley gives Santa a big hug around the neck. And as he walks away, she begins to fill her cart with clothes for her daughters — some that will fit right away, and some a size larger for later on.
"I have the cash now," she explains. "I don't know when I'll have it again."
'That's really something'
Known as Elf 32A before the original Santa died, the New Secret Santa won't say much about himself, insisting that his face not be photographed.
"I'm a Kansas City businessman. I was a friend of Larry Stewart. And that's about all you need to know."
Carrying as much as $25,000 in cash, he travels with a police escort and several of his own "elves," including a retired FBI agent.
A public relations firm donates time, drumming up publicity not for Santa himself, but for the idea.
"If I give a hundred dollars to people, and they're inspired to go do good deeds themselves, that's great," he says.
"But if a thousand people hear about this and are inspired to do just one good deed each, well, that's really something."
Before he died, Stewart began recruiting local "elves" to carry on the tradition across the country, and the new Santa has recruited even more helpers. Every year now, anonymous millionaires hit the streets in Phoenix; Detroit; St. Louis; Charlotte, N.C.; and other places.
By this time next year, the new Santa hopes to add Tulsa to that list, and he apparently met with a potential candidate before leaving town.
"Believe me," he says, "you get more out of this than the people do; it gives you such a great feeling. It's selfish, in a way."
Michael Overall 581-8383
A businessman known as "Elf 32A" or "Secret Santa" gives $100 to the mothers of Chamariah Chadwick (center), 3, and Aniah Heath at the Value Thrift Store at 11th Street and Memorial Drive on Wednesday. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
Rebecca Chadwick gives a hug to "Secret Santa" after receiving a $100 bill at the Value Thrift Store on Wednesday. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, hopes to encourage others to do good deeds. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
"Secret Santa" gives $100 to Mary Haney at the Value Thrift Store at 11th Street and Memorial Drive on Wednesday. Carrying as much as $25,000 in cash, he travels with a police escort and several of his own "elves," including a retired FBI agent. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World
The New Secret Santa, like his predecessor, won't say much about himself and he insists that his face not be photographed. ADAM WISNESKI / Tulsa World