It happened during the afternoon shift change.
Four men in a black car zoomed into the parking lot at Mugs-Up Root Beer, a tiny drive-in on 23rd Street in Independence. All but the driver popped out.
Normally, customers wait in their vehicles for carhops. But these strangers hungered for something other than burgers and fries.
They herded all the employees into the cramped building.
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“This is a raid,” their leader announced. “Who is in charge here?”
He paused, looked around and then slipped a hand into his pants pocket. A grin spread across his face.
“This is a Secret Santa raid,” he said. He pulled out crisp $100 bills and started handing them to the workers.
“Oh my God,” Bradley Baker exclaimed. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”
Ten years after Larry Stewart, Kansas City’s original Secret Santa, conducted his final sleigh ride before dying of esophageal cancer, the man he trained to succeed him had just struck one of Stewart’s most sentimental targets.
Just up the street, at an eatery similar to Mugs-Up, Stewart had experienced an epiphany in 1979 that sparked his 28-season run as Secret Santa. That place, Burton’s Burgers, lasted only a few more years. Stewart turned Mugs-Up into an honorary substitute locale to visit every year. He’d always pay a lucky carhop with a Ben Franklin and announce: “Keep the change.”
Over the years, Mugs-Up owner Ann Hinojosa had heard stories from her employees about the big tipper. She’d noticed that he had stopped visiting. She’d also heard about the original Secret Santa and knew that he’d died. But she’d never made the connection.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Hinojosa said as she watched joy spread this week among her young crew. “You caught us at the right time. So many of the employees are here. So many of them need help right now.”
Mugs-Up served as the new Santa’s final stop on a recent afternoon spent zigzagging across Independence, the city where Stewart had experienced some of his lowest lows and highest highs.
Santa recruited Stewart’s main elf, former Jackson County Sheriff Tom Phillips, out of retirement to guide him to some of Stewart’s favorite stopping places.
They’d rendezvoused first with current Sheriff Mike Sharp, Independence Police Chief Brad Halsey and other officers and elves inside an Independence Police Department facility on Truman Road.
“This is the 10-year anniversary of Larry’s last sleigh ride and 10 years since my first,” Santa told the group before embarking. “It started right here, so it’s a special time to be back here.”
They had a two-fold mission, he said: Find people who needed a helping hand and commit random acts of kindness.
“It’s not about the money,” Santa said. “It’s the unconditional act of kindness. … Today, we are just touching souls. It’s that simple.”
Larry Dean Stewart grew up poor in Mississippi, raised by his grandparents in a small home without an indoor bathroom or water heater.
As a young salesman, he became homeless after the company he worked for suddenly closed in 1971. Kicked out of his motel after paychecks stopped arriving, Stewart slept in his car for several nights. He ran the engine to keep warm — until the engine drank its final gulp of gasoline.
One morning, broke and cold and hungry, Stewart ordered a large breakfast at a diner and then feigned having lost his wallet. The cook pretended to scoop up something from the floor and handed Stewart a $20 bill, a considerable sum in those days.
“You must have dropped this,” the cook said.
After paying for breakfast, pushing his car to a gas station, filling up and hitting the road, Stewart figured out that no one had dropped that money. “Cookie” had realized his situation and helped. Stewart said a prayer of thanks and vowed to do the same for someone some day.
Not long after that, he left Mississippi for Missouri. More rough financial times followed. At one point, out of money after a business went bust, he borrowed a handgun to rob a convenience store so he could buy food for his wife and young son. But as he pulled away from his government-subsidized apartment, he hit the brakes and starting crying.
He couldn’t do it. He prayed for help. That night, his brother-in-law offered him a loan out of the blue.
In 1979, Stewart lost his job shortly before Christmas for the second year in a row. He stopped one afternoon for a cheap lunch at Burton’s Burgers. When the carhop brought him a hamburger and soda, he handed her a $20 bill and noticed her shivering in bitter cold that easily penetrated her thin, tattered coat. She needed help, he thought.
“Keep the change,” he said.
Suddenly, Stewart remembered being homeless and hungry and how he’d felt after Cookie helped him. He went to his bank, withdrew about half his meager savings and drove around Independence searching for people to help.
Early the next year, he landed a new job. Within two years, he was handing out hundred-dollar bills at Christmas. As the years passed, his giving grew. He encouraged others to do the same. It didn’t have to be money, he said. Open a door for a stranger. Carry someone’s groceries. Perform at least one random act of kindness a day.
He started a website that explained his philosophy. He hired a private investigator to find the Mississippi diner owner — Ted Horn — and repaid his kindness with $10,000 and a special sleigh ride. He expanded his reach through sleigh rides across the country, hoping to inspire copycats as well as salve wounds following tragic years in places like lower Manhattan, which he visited three months after the World Trade Center towers came down.
In April 2006, Stewart learned he had an incurable cancer.
As Christmas approached that year, he recruited others he hoped would carry on the tradition. He asked one to join him in late November for a Chicago sleigh ride in honor of his friend Buck O’Neil, the former Negro Leagues baseball star who became the first black coach in the Major Leagues with the Cubs in 1962. O’Neil recently had died in a Kansas City hospital. Santa had stamped all his bills that year with Buck’s name and the Secret Santa website address.
The friend offered to send $20,000 with Stewart.
“No,” Stewart said. “You have to give it out.”
So the friend boarded the plane to Chicago, where their first stop was the small home of a widow who recently had lost her husband, a police K-9 officer killed as he sat in his patrol car. Stewart gave her a larger-than-normal stack of bills and then tapped his friend on the leg and introduced him as a second Secret Santa.
Unprepared, the friend blurted: “There is only one Secret Santa. I’m Elf 32a.” Then he donated more money “from all the elves.”
After they landed back in Kansas City, Elf 32a turned to Stewart and said, “I get it.”
A few weeks later, Stewart took his final sleigh ride through eastern Jackson County.
In early January 2007, his condition worsened. Elf 32a stopped one moonlit night at Stewart’s hospital room, where they sat in the dark and talked about life and death and other matters.
“Do you have any regrets?” Elf 32a asked.
“Yes,” Stewart said. “I just wish I could have helped more people.”
Elf 32a put his hand on Stewart’s. “I promise that next Christmas, I will take as many hundred-dollar bills as I can get and I will pass them out with your name on them coast to coast.”
Stewart squeezed his friend’s hand.
As Elf 32a became Secret Santa II, he kept his promise.
He has recruited others to be Santas — in places like Detroit, Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C.
He has conducted sleigh rides in several cities every year, from New York to Los Angeles, plus at multiple locales in the Kansas City area.
He has taught scores of police officers and highway patrol troopers how to spot prospective recipients, strike up a conversation and hand them a bill or two. Often, at least one officer melts into tears during each sleigh ride.
“I believe kindness is the common language and the bridge between all people,” Santa said. “If all of us, every American, would stand up and commit one random act of kindness to a stranger, the collective energy from our souls would be so bright it would light up the world, and everyone would see the true spirit of America.”
Four motorcycle officers provided an escort as Santa’s caravan pulled out from the Independence police building Wednesday afternoon.
Phillips suggested they start at the Hawthorne Place Apartments, the public housing complex where Stewart had been living when he considered robbing a convenience store. Every year for many years, Stewart and Phillips had gone back and knocked on Stewart’s old door. If they found anyone home, they handed over Christmas cash.
As the caravan wound through the sprawling complex Wednesday, Santa noticed a woman standing outside with small children. The caravan halted. Santa handed money to the woman, who said she would buy a television so the children would have some entertainment beyond their coloring books.
Around the corner, Santa spotted Nicole Galvin, a babysitter watching three young children.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. “We are with the Independence police. We noticed you loitering here.”
The citation for loitering, he said, was $100. For her. He handed her a bill.
She burst into tears. One of the children started crying and buried her face in Galvin’s thigh.
“It’s OK,” Galvin told the girl. “They are nice. They are not mean.”
Galvin had just lost a job and her daughter had been in the hospital, so the money meant a lot, Galvin said.
When Santa and Phillips knocked at Stewart’s old apartment, no one answered.
So the caravan took off, trolling along U.S. 24 and back and forth on 23rd Street. As they stopped at coin-operated laundries, a pawn shop and various thrift and discount stores, Santa and his elves left trails of tears, joy and disbelief.
At one laundry mat, Halsey knocked on the car window of an elderly woman preparing to leave in a white SUV. They chatted. He pushed $100 toward her. She shook her head. He insisted. “Secret Santa wants you to have it,” he said.
Her washer had broken days earlier. She’d asked someone to watch her husband, homebound after a stroke and unable to be left alone, while she went to the laundromat.
“I’ve never had anything like that happen,” the woman, who didn’t want to give her name, said of the gift. Her chin quivered and her eyes moistened. “Thanks so much. This will help me get a washer I need so badly.”
Outside Community Services League near Independence Square, Santa noticed a woman in a van. She and her boyfriend, homeless for two months, lived in the vehicle. Santa gave her two bills and whispered encouragement into her ear.
And so the afternoon went.
Santa and the elves pulled some of Stewart’s old tricks, such as dropping a bill on a store’s floor and announcing, “Hey, you dropped something.” They turned a suspicious young man doing laundry with his sister into a happy camper. They cited a man scurrying away from officers inside a thrift store for speeding. The ticket, of course, was $100 for him.
At the Salvation Army Thrift Store, Officer Ed Wisdom saw Katrina Brown trying on a $6.99 coat. They chatted. When Brown wasn’t looking, Wisdom slipped $100 into one of the coat’s pockets.
“I always check the pockets in those things,” he said, grinning. Soon Brown was clutching a bill and exclaiming, “Where did that come from? Where did that come from?”
She flung her arms around Wisdom’s neck and gave him a tight hug.
At another store, Connie Davila clutched a bill with one hand and wiped a tear with the other.
“I’m shaking,” she said, explaining that she makes minimum wage and had spent everything she had on Christmas.
At Dollar General, Sheriff Sharp watched Lisa Grigsby put a $5 dollhouse back on the shelf because she didn’t have enough money to get it for a grandchild. Sharp slipped her a gift. She paid him back with a hug.
Soon it came time to visit Mugs-Up.
The group pulled in from the east.
Hinojosa, who has owned the 60-year-old eatery since 1978, looked puzzled as she followed police officers into the little building that serves as kitchen and pick-up counter. As her employees celebrated Santa’s gifts, she marveled at the timing.
One employee, a single mother of three, had been struggling to pay her utility bills. A young man who worked two jobs needed cash to repair his motorcycle.
Another young man, who arrived late and nearly missed Santa’s visit, recently had become homeless, along with his parents. They had been forced to move out of a house that was “in really bad shape,” Hinojosa said. The mother has cancer.
Santa gave the young man a big bonus.
Back at the police facility afterward, Santa thanked all who helped make the day a success.
“It was so wonderful to go at all the stops Larry used to make — and make those stops in memory of him and what he started,” Santa said. “I am sure at this point in time, he is smiling down and saying: ‘Good job.’ ”