KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Secret Santa pulled a wad of hundreds from his pocket, the youngsters' eyes grew big as Christmas balls.
But when he told the story of the dying man, that's when he really had them.
"It was a cold winter night," the mystery man started out from the head of the long wooden table. "The light was low, his voice weak ..."
Secret Santa relayed the tale on a recent morning in the Westport area of Kansas City. For the past couple of years, he had found adults in cities around the country to take up the calling, but this Christmas, Santa was after some young elves to help spread the word.
Besides, nobody can be Secret Santa forever. Best to plant seeds early.
After walking into the room where five students from Visitation School waited, he first got the youngsters' pledge to protect his identity.
"If anyone asks, you tell them he's a jolly old fat man with a white beard," he told them.
They listened to his story about sitting up late in a hospital with the Kansas City area's original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart. The two talked that night of God and life and death and, of course, the joy of all those sleigh rides Stewart made in 27 years as Secret Santa.
Stewart wanted his friend to take over the holiday tradition of giving money away anonymously to needy strangers in exchange for their pledge to do something nice for someone else. The friend, though, was reluctant.
"But what do you say to a dying man?" he asked the students.
They didn't answer. They were kids, 13 and 14 years old. Chances are, none had ever said anything to a dying man.
"You say 'yes,' don't you?" Secret Santa prodded.
"Yes," one boy finally said.
The others nodded. They all smiled.
And in much the same way that the hospital chat brought the new Secret Santa around, the story of that visit helped him mine hearts from a new generation.
Two of those students will accompany Secret Santa on his fast-approaching sleigh rides to hand out cash to people at thrift stores, launderettes and bus stations.
The youngsters serve on Visitation's junior board, a philanthropy group that raises money during the school year and donates it to nonprofits that work mostly in the urban core. In past years, the funds have amounted to about $5,000.
"Some of these neighborhoods are in pretty rough shape," said Hudson O'Neill, 13, the junior board president.
"I like to see their faces when we give them the money," said Kelly Gardella, 14.
Secret Santa listened to the students and studied their faces.
"And how does that make you feel?" he asked them.
Good, the students agreed.
"And what difference does the money make?" he asked.
It changes the lives of people it helps, one said. It goes for good things, another added.
Secret Santa waited.
"It makes a difference in our lives, too," said Matthew Brown, 14.
That's the answer Secret Santa was looking for. "What you've done will stay with you the rest of your lives."
He told them the tale of Larry Stewart, who years ago when broke, hungry and living in his car, went into a cafe and ordered a meal. When the check came, he planned to say he couldn't find his wallet.
But the cafe owner, a man named Ted Horn, handed Stewart a $20 bill and said, "You must have dropped this."
Stewart knew what had happened, and he vowed that day that he would help others whenever he could. And after arriving in Kansas City and making a lot of money, he did the annual Secret Santa sleigh rides for more than a quarter century before dying in January 2007.
This year's sleigh rides will be a tribute to Horn, the restaurant owner. He died Nov. 20. All bills given away this year will be stamped with his name instead of the usual "Secret Santa."
The new Santa, who took over in 2007, also told the Visitation students lots of stories, including one about a down-and-out man he found at a bus station in Phoenix. The man was traveling to Philadelphia to see his sick father for Christmas. The two had been estranged. The man carried everything he owned in one small bag.
"You got any money?" Secret Santa asked.
The man shook his head. "Got some candy bars."
Secret Santa gave the man $300, and the man promised he would pass along the kindness. Minutes later, he was giving away all his belongings from that one bag to other poor travelers.
"If just for a moment you change someone's life and make it brighter," Secret Santa told the students, "that's what this is all about."
And with that, he broke out $2,500 (in $100 bills) for the school's philanthropy fund — and a $100 bill for each of the five students.
"You can do whatever you want with it," he told them.
They asked him for a Secret Santa stamp, just in case they want to break the hundred into five 20s to give away.
And then it was time for him to go. But first, "Now remember ..."
"He's a jolly old fat guy with a white beard," the students chimed together.