Santa’s spirit will not be forgotten

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

Santa Claus has cancer.

It started in his esophagus and spread to his liver. He’s being treated, but chemotherapy has sapped his appetite and energy and he’s down about a hundred pounds. He’s worried about money, too. The treatment costs more than $16,000 a month and his insurance doesn’t cover it.

Santa Claus is named Larry Stewart and he’s a wealthy 58-year-old businessman who lives in a suburb of Kansas City, but he used to be a down-on-his-luck 20-something living out of his car. How did he become Santa Claus? Well, it might have begun that day he approached a woman at a church and told her he was destitute. She told him the man who handled destitute people was gone for the day and suggested he come back tomorrow. Stewart says he never felt so low. He never did go back.

Or maybe it began that time he hadn’t eaten for two days and he went into a diner and ordered breakfast and then, when the bill came, pretended he’d lost his wallet. The owner of the diner came over. “You must have dropped this,” he said. And he put a twenty into Stewart’s hand.

Or maybe Larry Stewart became Santa Claus the day he was at a drive-through restaurant, feeling dispirited and low at having lost his job the week before Christmas. For the second year in a row. As he recently told The Associated Press, “It was cold and the carhop didn’t have on a very big jacket and I thought to myself, ‘I think I got it bad. She’s out there in the cold making nickels and dimes.”’

He handed her a twenty on a tab that couldn’t have been more than two or three bucks and told her to keep the change. The woman cried and told him he had no idea what his gift meant. “And man, I’m telling you what, it just ripped my heart right out. And I thought, ‘Wow.’ I had never had a feeling like that.”

He liked the feeling so much that he went to his bank and took out $200 in fives and twenties and drove around looking for people who looked like they needed help. That was in 1979 and he’s done the same thing every year since, randomly handing out $100 bills (by his estimate, a total of $1.3 million) to strangers with what he calls “that look” — poverty, desperation, need — in their eyes. He never told anyone who he was. Reporters who traveled with “secret Santa” had to swear to keep his name out of the paper.

But now Santa Claus has cancer. The media have come calling — The Associated Press, CNN, the Kansas City Star and more — and he has agreed to be named. He doesn’t say this in so many words, but you get the sense he’s thinking that if he dies, he doesn’t want the idea of random kindness to die with him. He wants people to remember how good giving feels. He wants them to know that giving is its own reward.

People seem unlikely to forget. When the Star wrote about him, it brought letters from around the state and from as far away as Texas and South Carolina. People said he gave them hope. People said he inspired them to kindnesses of their own. People said they were praying for him.

“There’s people praying for me that …” he told CNN, and then he stopped, grief and gratitude gluing his throat closed so that it took him 20 seconds to finish the thought: “I don’t even know ’em.”

Now, here Christmas comes. Maybe the first one he’ll miss since Jimmy Carter was president.

Lights are being strung on houses, tree lots are opening for business. And there’s Santa Claus, sick with cancer, and maybe facing his last Christmas, pondering life, death and the meaning of the years between. All those years, all those strangers, all those random kindnesses.

The axiom says it is better to give than to receive.

One suspects Santa Claus, even now, would disagree. One suspects he would say that if you do the one, the other happens naturally.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com