The Secret Santa of Joplin: $450,000 and Counting

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Karen Ball

The donation kettle at the Joplin, Missouri Walgreens where a "secret Santa" dropped $100,000 in checks.

No one saw a jolly old man with a snow-white beard outside the Walgreens pharmacy in Joplin, Missouri that night. But when the Salvation Army emptied its red kettle after an evening of bell ringing on Dec. 13, it was as though Santa himself had stopped by.

Amidst the haul, a Salvation Army counting crew found five $1 bills, folded tightly into squares — each concealing a $20,000 cashier's check with "Santa Claus" listed as the remitter.

"We're pretty proud of having something like this going on here," said Capt. Jason Poff, head of the local Salvation Army. "Someone special is walking among us — they see the need and they give."

The most amazing part: such miracles are Christmas as usual in this threadbare southwest Missouri town, where a mysterious Secret Santa has been lifting spirits for years. Starting in 2004, the Salvation Army has found wondrous treasures in its humble kettles. At first, it was five cashier's checks for $10,000 each, found in different kettles around town, totaling $50,000 per season each year from 2004 through 2008. Last year, when every other economic indicator was down, Santa was doubly generous, leaving a total of $100,000 at various locations.

This was the first year Santa put all $100,000 into one kettle, sometime between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Dec. 13. It was a frosty evening. Across the street from the pharmacy, the message board in front of the old brick Bethany Presbyterian Church beckoned passers-by to a coming Christmas potluck. The bell ringer, a single mom in her 20s, reported slow traffic. "She didn't think she'd gotten very many donations," Poff said. Evidently, Santa can walk right up to you, and you may not even notice.

The checks were issued by the local Commerce Bank, and if the Secret Santa has an elf or two at work there, they are good at keeping a secret. Local media have tried and failed over the years to figure out who the donor might be. The anonymous gifts now total $450,000.

Joplin is an old mining town once known for its riches of lead and zinc. Historic Route 66 ran right through town, in easy reach of the old stone garage that Bonnie and Clyde used as a hideout in the 1930s. One day, the police found them. They barely escaped town after a deadly shootout, but the fleeing gangsters left a camera behind — giving the Joplin Globe a scoop, and the world perhaps the most infamous photos of the pair. In one, Bonnie held Clyde at mock gunpoint; in another, she had her foot propped on a fender, pistol in hand, and a cigar in her mouth.

There are signs of prosperity out by the highway, where gleaming BMW and Volvo dealerships line the road. But downtown, many of the old storefronts are boarded up. A new generation is moving in, hoping to add a little zing: a gourmet hot dog café called Instant Karma, a sleek salon with exposed brick and teal, and Spokes and Spandex, a high-end shop for cyclists.

Yet signs of hard times aren't hard to find in a town where a Family Dollar store is right across from Master C's Bargains. The Salvation Army has 898 families in its care this year, including 1,500 children. The organization invites mothers in need to fill out "Little Angel" requests to help put some Christmas in their children's lives. This year has been especially hard: moms are asking for coats and shoes, not toys. "They need the necessities," said Poff.

The Salvation Army's red kettle campaign is one of the most venerable charity projects in the United States, dating back more than a century. In 1891, a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco wanted to feed the hungry at Christmastime, and decided to try an idea he'd seen in England. A big iron kettle was set out at a Liverpool landing, and folks would toss in a coin or two to help the poor.

All these years later, on a sunny weekend afternoon, Nelson Clark, 55, was whistling "Jingle Bells" and keeping time with his wood-handled bell as he manned the kettle at the Walgreens where Joplin's Secret Santa had made his silent visit. "I don't know who he is, but he had the hand of God on him," said Clark.

Joplin residents seem content to let their Santa keep his privacy. "I love that kind of philanthropy," said Jason Miller, the owner of Instant Karma. Poff, the Salvation Army captain, added: "This person is not looking for an attaboy or a pat on the back. Really, it's the spirit of Christmas."

Amanda Rosenthal, a Walgreens manager, was working that night and remembers nothing out of the ordinary. The store is the area's busiest, she says, serving low-income clientele, many who must come by foot, trolley or bicycle. "You could blend in here," she said. "We're so busy, it would be very easy to just be overlooked."