Saturday, December 2, 2006

The true story of America's Secret Santa

The Philippine STAR 11/27/2006

We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill
To practice five things under all circumstances constitutes perfect virtue; these five are gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness. – Confucius
It's mind-boggling, to say the least, to rediscover one's childhood faith in Santa Claus in the massive and wintry capital city of China amid the Beijing Auto Show (so many Audis, Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, luxury cars and China-made vehicles with so many buyers) and the China Fashion Week (so much beauty and elegance!).
Despite all the impressive statistics on China's surging exports, trade surpluses and world-record foreign exchange reserves now surpassing $1 trillion, a young driver of Shangri-la Hotel Beijing told me there are still many poor people in China and that the West should not forget this nation is still a developing country. While driving me to the hotel, which is so luxurious it is hard to accept there are still poor people in China, he said that on Beijing's outskirts there are many communities of simple families. He said it's true there are no massive slum colonies in China and that social progress is happening, but government leaders are telling the truth when they tell the US and Western trade negotiators that much still has to be done economically to improve the quality of lives of the rural masses in the vast hinterlands.
Who will take care of all the poor people in China's vast rural hinterlands? What about the urban and rural poor of the Philippines who, for generations, were manipulated by corrupt politicos who bought their votes, or the orphans, widows and other disadvantaged people of the world? Who will take up the cudgels for them, care for them out of genuine goodness of heart and ease their suffering without reward? Do we need more tycoon philanthropists, or secret Zorros or Batman/Bruce Waynes to make a dent on massive poverty, social inequity, injustice and other problems confronting humanity?
I used to hate that overweight Caucasian guy called Santa Claus, with his white beard and silly unfashionable costume. To me, he was overly pretentious, a fake, a publicity hound who dared to outshine Jesus Christ at Christmas. Call me a killjoy, but I used to detest even the sight of Santa Claus, and all those carols, TV shows and kiddie parties that over-emphasized Santa Claus as part of retailers’ global conspiracy to urge all of us hapless and gullible consumers to empty our wallets and spend more.
Here in Beijing, in a society that officially still calls itself atheist because the communist government doesn't accept the existence of God or his son Jesus Christ as our savior sent here 2,006 years ago at the first Christmas, it is amazing that I stumbled upon a heart-warming Santa Claus/Christmas story in the Nov. 21 issue of the state-controlled China Daily newspaper. The article tells the incredible and inspiring saga of an anonymous benefactor who has given away $1.3 million dollars in cash in the last 26 years to hard-up strangers in America, and how illness has forced him to finally reveal his true identity, because he was seeking a replacement to continue his unusual social work.
For the last 26 years, a portly man dressed in a red tunic and sporting a Santa Claus beard has been delighting unsuspecting strangers with his cash gifts. He is 58-year-old Kansas City businessman Larry Stewart. He started giving away $5 to $10 bills to ordinary people who seemed down and out, and his cash gifts eventually rose to $100 bills due to his growing wealth and inflation. He always insisted on keeping his identity a secret so the public and media came to call him the "Secret Santa".
Larry Stewart earned millions of dollars running a cable television and long-distance telephone service. He became so famous and legendary for his years of anonymous generosity, news reports reported his exploits and world-famous Oprah Winfrey even once guested him on her TV show. He insisted on keeping his identity anonymous, and when he appeared at Oprah’s show in costume, she said: "Why, you are Santa incarnate." The Internet even has a website on the Secret Santa and an American journalist has written a book on this phenomenon entitled "Santa's Secret, A Story of Hope."
The secret cash gifts of the Secret Santa ended this spring, because doctors diagnosed Stewart with cancer of the esophagus, which has since then spread to his liver. He now has to spend $16,000 a month for chemotherapy, which is not covered by his health insurance, and the treatments have exhausted his body. Due to these conditions, the Secret Santa recently agreed to reveal his identity in the hope that he can inspire another Good Samaritan out there to take over his Santa duties.
In recent years, he has trained helpers to give out $100,000 traveling between the cities of Chicago and Kansas. This year, he has four deputy Santas who will still give out a total of $65,000 dollars.
Where did the Secret Santa come from? What motivated his humble generosity? Unlike other poor people who have grown wealthy, arrogant, extravagant and embittered by their difficult past, Larry Stewart was a self-made man whose past poverty motivated him to help others who are also poor. In the early 1970s, he was jobless and so poor he had to live in his car, a yellow Datsun 510. He was so desperate once he mustered the guts to approach a church to seek assistance, but when he was told the person who could help him was out, he knew he would never go back again.
By the late 1970s, he had recovered some money and got a job, but soon misfortune struck again as he was fired from his job just before Christmas in 1978. A year later, a week before Christmas, he was coincidentally fired from his new job again. Stewart was disconsolate in that winter of misfortune, but when he saw a shivering, roller-skating young waitress working at a drive-in restaurant, he realized there were many others here on earth who were worse off than him.
Recalling that moment when he learned to count his blessings, Stewart said: "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. She’s out there in this cold making nickels and dimes,’"
The unemployed Larry Stewart decided to give her a $20 bill. He recalled that the young woman's lips suddenly trembled and tears started to flow down her cheeks, and she told him: "Sir, you have no idea what this means to me."
After that incident, the jobless Stewart went to the bank, withdrew $200 dollars and drove around Kansas City looking for people down-on-their-luck to give money to. Thus started the legend of the Secret Santa.
In the freezing cold of winter in the ancient imperial, majestic and stunningly beautiful Beijing, amid Western-style capitalism and glitzy consumerist revolution, I'm delighted and inspired by this heart-warming Secret Santa story from halfway around the globe.
I don't think I will ever get to meet the retiring Santa Larry Stewart. He might not have won an NBA basketball championship, or written a Pulitzer Prize-winning book or won an Oscar Award, and he might never be even one-tenth as wealthy as the egoistical realty tycoon Donald Trump, but I sincerely admire Larry Stewart and his goodness as a humble and noble human being. He is one businessman that I highly respect.
Thank you, Larry Stewart, for making this cynic believe in Santa Claus again. Thank you reminding me that the true meaning of Christmas is not in the no-work/no-school holidays, the carols, the colorful lights, tinsel and decor, not in the sumptuous foods or merry-making parties or shopping or the gifts, but that the true meaning of the season is in the Christ-like example of selfless giving and in the joy of eternal hope.
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