Secret Santa spreads cheer, tears

By RICHARD LUKEN
Register Reporter

Photo illustration by Richard Luken

KINCAID — The young mother sat silently in her car last week, like she does every day, awaiting the school bus that would drop off her child at the end of the day.
She didn’t notice the frail, blue-eyed gentleman approaching, until he gave her car window a little tap with his knuckles.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
The man hands over a single, crisp $100 bill. “This is yours,” he said.
The woman, astonished, refuses.
“I can’t take money from a stranger,” she says.
The man, however is insistent.
“If an angel walked up to you with a gift, would you refuse?” he asks.
“No.”
“How do you know I’m not one?” he asks.
“I don’t.”
“Then take this and be blessed,” he says as he places the bill in her hand.
The woman’s eyes well with tears.
“You don’t know what this means,” she says, her voice cracking.
The woman had recently lost her job. Christmas gifts were going to be hard to come by, she admitted.
The man — we’ll call him Secret Santa for this article — wipes away a tear himself.
“You know, I’ve been called heaven-sent,” he later told a Register reporter. “I’ve been called an angel and a saint — even a ‘Secret Santa.’”
The answer, he clarifies, is none of the above.
“I’m just a nobody,” he said.

FOR A NOBODY, this Secret Santa — who agreed to talk with the Register after being guaranteed anonymity — has certainly made a significant difference to his townsfolk.
Since Wednesday, he’s visited more than 60 of Kincaid’s 65 homes, giving away $100 bills at each stop.
“This is a very, very depressed area,” he said. “Kincaid has a sawmill and a cafe, and that’s it. Everybody has to leave town to seek employment.”
On most every block in town sits an empty, decaying home, to the point that repairs would cost more than the home’s worth.
“We have lots of people who are unemployed,” Secret Santa said. “Others who are disabled.”
The man knows of the trials and tribulations facing many Kincaid residents. In fact, not so long, he’d have appreciated a handout himself.
A recent health scare, a recent increase in government benefits and a dream all lead to the man’s sudden insight of generosity.

SECRET SANTA stopped by one house to see a young gentleman replacing his car’s fuel filter. He motions the man over and slips him a $100 bill.
The man, like most of the other recipients, is astonished.
Then came the tears.
“I’ve had a lot of people start crying,” Secret Santa said. “That makes me happy, and sad. Happy that I made a difference; sad because there’s so much need.”
The past week has been a draining one, physically, emotionally and especially spiritually, Secret Santa admits.
The young man’s wife finds Secret Santa a day later.
“She comes up and asks me if she could give me a hug,” Secret Santa said. “I said, ‘You never have to ask a question like that.’”

WITH EACH of Secret Santa’s stops, he offered one caveat.
The recipients were asked to avoid contacting the media about their gifts.
The requests were apparently unheeded. The Register received two notices Monday morning about Secret Santa.
“I guess somebody didn’t listen,” Secret Santa said with a laugh.
He turns serious.
“I didn’t do this for the publicity,” he said. “This really is no big deal. I’m not a hero.”
Secret Santa recalls his days in the service, of seeing friends maimed or killed in action.
“Those are the true heroes, the ones who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us,” he said.
He recounted reading the story of Kansas City’s Secret Santa, who eventually revealed himself to be Larry Stewart, a local philanthropist whom was believed to have given away more than $1.3 million before his death in 2007.
Other Secret Santas have since popped up, in Kansas City and elsewhere.
“Maybe this interview will convince other people to do something similar,” Secret Santa said. “We all sit around and wait for a miracle. It doesn’t work that way. But we can help make one happen.”

A VETERAN OF the Vietnam War, Secret Santa’s health has worsened the past several years.
Diabetes — which he suspects was related to his exposure to Agent Orange and other pesticides during his three years in Vietnam — has meant living primarily on disability and Social Security benefits.
Heart problems have sent him into the hospital three times over the past three years for open-heart surgery.
“The third time almost killed me,” he said.
It was there, at the University of Kansas Medical Center, that turned into a family miracle of sorts.
Secret Santa, who originally thought he was suffering from the flu over Labor Day weekend, soon found himself unable to walk. He was rushed to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Kansas City, Mo., then to KU for surgery.
Doctors replaced a leaky heart valve — the third such surgery for Secret Santa — but not without some peripheral damage occurring.
The blood buildup in his lungs meant there was a lack of oxygen in the blood feeding his kidneys.
Now, he has permanent lung and kidney damage.
“I’ll have to be on oxygen for the rest of my life,” he said.
But it was at the hospital that led to what he described as a true miracle. Two of his estranged children, one of whom hadn’t spoken with Secret Santa for 20 years, were called to his bedside.
“They told me that without surgery, I was going to die in a few days,” he recalled. “That’s when they called in all of my kids. I guess it was time to bury the hatchet.”
Those same family members dined at Secret Santa’s house for Thanksgiving dinner last month.

SHORTLY after getting home from the hospital in October, Secret Santa recalled a dream in which God spoke through an angel.
“The angel spoke to me in such a way that I knew I wasn’t going to be able to take any money with me,” he said. “I needed to spread it around.
“When you stand before God, all the money on Earth isn’t going to make a difference,” he continued. “The greatest gift you can give is love.”
Secret Santa looked at his surroundings to find folks in need of help.
Then it hit him — everyone needed a hand.
“My little town is hurting, almost to the point of extinction,” he said.
Secret Santa figured up the disability and Social Security benefits he would need for his monthly medication bill, food and other expenses. He gave away the rest.
Thus, Secret Santa’s door-to-door visits started Wednesday evening. With a friend nearby to help knock on doors, he canvassed the neighborhood.
“There were maybe four houses where I could never reach anybody,” he said.

SECRET Santa understands all too well the plight facing millions of Americans in a depressed economy.
As his medical bills mounted and his health worsened several years ago, Secret Santa struggled to pay his bills to the point that he found himself homeless and without transportation. He sought refuge in a friend’s barn — “My bed literally was two bales of hay” — and occasionally had to walk the 12 miles from Kincaid to Moran just for a gallon of milk.
“It makes you appreciate the good times even more,” he said philosophically. “My house isn’t much to look at, but I have a roof over my head and heat in the winter.”

SECRET Santa’s friends were a bit incredulous at his endeavor.
“Have you lost your mind?” one friend asked.
“You’re not going to be leaving us — kicking the bucket — are you?” asked another.
“Well, if the Lord has anything to do with it, I’m not going anywhere,” was Secret Santa’s response. “He apparently still has a job for me to do.”
Secret Santa also shares his spiritual message.
“There’s too much greed in the world right now,” he said. “Everybody’s after the almighty dollar. If everybody showed just a little compassion and a lot of love, this world be a much better place.”