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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz
 

Spreading Christmas Cheer ... $100 At A Time

22 December 2004

Shoppers and employees inside the Goodwill Industries outlet on West Sahara Avenue were a bit surprised Tuesday by the portly gentleman from Missouri who entered the store dressed in red while flanked by ex-FBI agents, pro football Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus, the daughter of a Las Vegas casino developer and others.

When the self-described Secret Santa began handing out $100 bills, the surprise turned to joyous tears.

The same reactions were felt by employees of a fast-food restaurant, patrons at a Laundromat, and individuals waiting at bus stops. Others, those identified by the unnamed individual's "elves," benefited from a personal visit and received holiday blessings in the form of $100 bills.

"I have seven grandkids at home and this is going to them," Goodwill employee Robin Clark said as tears streamed down her cheeks. "I'm taking it home for them to see because they would never believe it."

Secret Santa did not want his name to be used and was only identified as a businessman from the Kansas City, Mo., area. In all, he planned to give away between $30,000 and $40,000 to strangers in Las Vegas. The gifts ranged from a $100 bill up to several thousands.

More than 30 years ago, Secret Santa said he was befriended by a stranger while broke in Mississippi. He vowed to offer the same sort of assistance to others if he ever had the means. The Secret Santa said he's been handing out holiday gifts to strangers since 1979.

"I've had over a $1 million in smiles," he said through a distinct Southern drawl and not divulging the exact figure he's bestowed upon strangers.

Donna McGuire, a reporter for the Kansas City Star, verified Secret Santa's anonymous endeavors, having covered his holiday gift-giving for 10 years. The businessman mostly hands out money during the holidays in economically depressed areas of the Kansas City community. He appeared on an Oprah Winfrey television show a few years ago in disguise after he took his holiday handouts to New York City following Sept. 11, 2001.

In 2002, Secret Santa handed out money in the Virginia area terrorized by the sniper attacks. Last year, he visited fire-ravaged communities in San Diego.

Last week, according to media accounts, he gave away about $30,000 in hurricane-stricken areas of Florida. He came to Las Vegas to honor his longtime friend, legendary casino host Charlie Meyerson, who died last month. He plans to return to Kansas City to give away another $30,000.

"Charlie was a real secret Santa," he said. "They call $100 bills 'Ben Franklins.' Today, I'm handing out 'Charlie Meyersons.' "

Each of the $100 bills given out Tuesday had been stamped with Meyerson's name and the Secret Santa's Web site, www.secretsantausa.com.

At the Goodwill outlet, Maria Flores expressed in Spanish the joy of being able to help her son with his college studies thanks to the $1,100 given to her by Secret Santa.

Shaunda Banks was "overwhelmed" when Secret Santa handed her $100.

Another Goodwill patron, Roger Marcellus, thought the $100 was counterfeit. "Tonight, I'm going to buy groceries," he said.

Butkus, one of the National Football League's most fearsome linebackers in his days with the Chicago Bears, said he met the Secret Santa more than a decade ago in a casino-sponsored golf tournament. He turned soft describing the day's events.

"We're his elves. We help him find the people who most need his help," Butkus said. "He's such a great guy, and it takes a lot of people to help him do this."

In addition to his random stops, the Secret Santa had a list of more than a dozen Las Vegas families and individuals with various financial hardships. All were identified by Las Vegas law enforcement sources as well as the businessman's Las Vegas connections. Two Metropolitan Police officers accompanied Secret Santa on his rounds.

Arthur Schwartz left his job as a casino porter to care for his wife, Gertrude, who is stricken with multiple sclerosis and is in need of a refurbished wheelchair. Secret Santa showed up at their northwest Las Vegas townhouse and peeled off $4,000 in $100 bills, leaving the money on the kitchen counter.

"We're in shock. We couldn't believe it," Schwartz said, searching for words to describe his feelings. "I knew Charlie Meyerson. This is really so special."

Kevyn Wynn, daughter of Wynn Resorts Ltd. Chairman Steve Wynn, joined Secret Santa for about 90 minutes on the excursion. Before heading out, they sprayed some of the money with Meyerson's favorite cologne.

"I had always wanted to help Secret Santa," said Wynn, who teared up while talking with some of the Goodwill customers and employees. "He's done this for so long and it made me feel good to help him."

The gifts came in different ways.

Cameron Miller was picking up lunch for his co-workers at the Jack in the Box restaurant on Spring Mountain Road during Secret Santa's visit. When store employees were hesitant about accepting cash from a stranger, Miller spoke up.

"I said if they don't want it, give it to me. So he did," Miller said. "He said, 'Happy Holidays.' "