After giving away $2 million, $100 at a time, how Secret Santa came to be

Secret Santa's start

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- It’s the one story that never gets old. Every year we ride with Secret Santa as he and his elves hand out hundreds of $100 bills to random strangers across the country. Viewers have no doubt seen the happy endings, but almost no one knows the humble beginning.

The legend of Secret Santa can actually be traced back to a single act of kindness in Houston, Mississippi. It was 1971. A homeless man had wandered into town, and he was starving.

Secret Santa hands out the green

The stranger stopped at the Dixie Diner and ordered the biggest breakfast on the menu. His plan was to sneak out before the bill came.

But the owner, a guy named Ted Horn, sensed what was about to happen. So he snuck up behind the guy with a $20 bill in his hand and said, “I think you may have dropped this.”

“And that was the end of it as far as he was concerned,” said David Horn, Ted’s son.

David and his sister Sandra say their dad died in 2009, but that one gift keeps on giving.

“That one little $20, just look what it did,” Sandra said.

“It’s difficult to imagine that,” David said.

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Ted Horn CBS News/Horn family

The homeless stranger was a man named Larry Stewart, who vowed that day if he ever got rich he would return the favor in spades. Larry eventually made millions in cable and long distance and became the first Secret Santa, his identity revealed only after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2006.

Which brings us to Larry’s good friend, the current Secret Santa.

“Larry was hospitalized and I went up to visit him at night ... moonlight shining in, kind of surreal ... so I asked Larry, ‘Do you have any regrets?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’  I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘I just wish I could have helped more people,’” Secret Santa said.

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Larry Stewart

After giving away more than a million dollars to total strangers, Larry still felt more needed to be done.

“So that’s when I assumed the responsibility,” Secret Santa said.

Over the last decade, this new Secret Santa has run the total to more than $2 million, and all from $20. Talk about happy returns.

To contact On the Road, or to send us a story idea, email us: OnTheRoad@cbsnews.com

Additional photographs in the video provided by Lou Bopp.

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.