He is known for the $100 bills — lots of $100 bills — he hands out every year to strangers across the country.
But his true calling cards are joy, wonder and hope.
And this year, residents of Topeka for the first time got to experience the annual phenomenon of Kansas City’s Secret Santa.
“Magical things happen,” Santa told his first-time elves before they embarked on their “sleigh ride.”
It was one whirlwind day around the Kansas capital city, at places where the sad, hurt and downtrodden were likely to be.
At each stop, the arrival of Santa and his “elves” was met with quizzical, “What’s going on?” stares. But they departed each location to smiles, tears and shouts of “praise Jesus.”
As he often does, Santa recruits local law enforcement officers to accompany him. And, as always, he presses $100 bills into the hands of those officers with the instruction that they must find someone to give them to.
The law enforcement isn’t for security.
“Nobody is going to rob the guy giving away money,” he told the officers. “I want the world to see the real heart of law enforcement. It’s important you are here.”
This year, among the first-year elves was Derek Schmidt, the Kansas attorney general. Throughout the day, whenever he found a target, it was a toss up who left with the biggest smile — the attorney general or the recipient of $100.
“This is such a heart-warming experience,” Schmidt said. “Such raw generosity.”
Two of Santa’s most emotional visits were with women and small children at a domestic violence shelter and a homeless shelter. At each place, he shared the story of Larry Stewart, the original Secret Santa, who at his lowest point was touched by a stranger’s act of kindness.
Stewart vowed that if he ever could he would do the same thing for others, and when Stewart earned his way to a fortune, he began the Secret Santa tradition.
A decade ago, Stewart was dying of cancer, and he asked the current Santa to carry on his mission. Today’s Santa has always remembered what Stewart said on his death bed: “I wish I could have helped more people.”
“I didn’t want to be Secret Santa,” the current Santa said. But for 11 years now he has honored his dying friend’s wish.
Most of his sleigh rides are done with no publicity. Like Stewart until the end, he insists on maintaining his anonymity.
“It’s not about the person,” he said. “It’s about the deed.”
But sometimes, like the Topeka sleigh ride, reporters are invited along. It’s how Santa tries to communicate what he hopes to do: “Inspire millions to do random acts of kindness.”
Along with the money he hands out, Santa asks people to pass the kindness along, to do something nice for somebody else.
“Kindness is the bridge between all people,” he said. And he feels that maybe he is succeeding.
“I see more acts of kindness than ever before,” he said.
Sometimes, even as he is trying to show kindness, Santa has kindness shown to him.
Debi Widman of Topeka was shopping at a thrift store when a man she didn’t know walked up and told her he liked her coat. The stranger offered her $50. Then $75. Then $100.
“I don’t want any money,” she told him. “I’ll give it to you.”
Only then did Secret Santa reveal who he was. He gave Widman $100 and she kept her coat.
“God bless you,” she told him.
Widman said the coat had been given to her, and she didn’t think it was right to take money for it.
“Why would I take money?” she said. “That would be wrong. There is too much ugly in the world.”
Widman’s gesture helped make Santa’s day.
“Those with the least,” he said, “are always willing to give the most.”