12/04/2006 at 01:00 AM EST
He would appear every Christmas season seemingly from nowhere, often disguised with eye patches or fake beards—and bearing wads of cash. He and his helpers (or "elves," as he calls them) handed out thousands of dollars to down-on-their-luck residents around Kansas City, Mo., usually leaving them speechless or in tears. Through it all, K.C.'s Secret Santa remained anonymous. But on Nov. 17, after a tabloid newspaper threatened to out him, Larry Stewart, a prosperous businessman, came forward. "Being Secret Santa lets me see firsthand what my dollars are doing," says Stewart, 58. "I get to see the smiles and the tears and hear the thank yous."
Stewart, who owns a telecommunications company, says since 1979 he has given $1.3 million to the needy. In 1989 he gave $35,000 to Brian Stainbrook, then a college student who needed help paying for a heart and lung transplant. A few years later Stainbrook helped Stewart pass out money. "It was one of the greatest experiences of my life," Stainbrook says of that night. "It restores your faith in your fellow man."
Stewart has come far from the early 1970s when he was living in his car and couldn't pay for a cup of coffee. After the owner of a diner he patronized slipped him $20, Stewart vowed to help others when he could. Now a divorced father of four, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer this past summer, but after chemotherapy is on the mend. While he will miss his days of giving anonymously, he hopes his newfound notoriety will continue inspiring others. "The more I give, the more I'm blessed," he says. "I am so blessed."