Tri-City secret Santa gets in spirit of season

Seven people standing at a Ben Franklin Transit stop in Kennewick on Monday got a surprise visit from a secret Santa dressed in a baseball cap and jeans.

He handed each of them a crisp white envelope containing a $100 bill.

“I don’t know who he was, where he came from or why he did it,” said Jessica Johnson, 17, of Kennewick, who would cross paths with the Santa for a second time later that afternoon. “He just said, ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

Johnson shouldn’t even have been on the bus that day.

She typically rides from Southridge High in Kennewick -- where she’s a junior -- to her mom’s antique shop in Richland after school. But the shop was closed Monday because of bad weather and her mother went to Southridge to pick her up.Johnson didn’t get that message, though, and wound up on the bus. She was waiting at the Huntington Transit Center at Clearwater Avenue for her mom to collect her when the Santa arrived.

He was nonchalant as he handed out the envelopes to seven strangers spread out under different shelters at the stop, Johnson said.

At first, she thought her envelope contained a $1 bill. When she realized it actually was $100, she could hardly believe her eyes.

She and a friend from Southridge, who’d also been at the stop and gotten an envelope, caught up with the man as he was driving away.

“He said, ‘If you don’t need it, give it to somebody who does,’ ” Johnson said.

“(This) doesn’t happen every day, does it?” said her mom, Liz Thompson.

The women came to the Herald on Monday afternoon -- about a half-hour after Johnson received her envelope -- to share the story because they were so moved by what the man had done.

In another twist of Christmas magic, the Santa walked into the Herald’s lobby on unrelated business as they were leaving. Johnson recognized him, but he didn’t identify himself to her and waited to admit he’d been the one with the envelopes until after she was gone.

He also asked not to be named publicly, saying he wanted the gifts to be anonymous in the spirit of the holidays.

The 44-year-old, who lives in the Tri-Cities, said he’s going through a divorce and is having a “lousy” Christmas.

“So today I decided I just needed to think about other people,” he said, his eyes becoming misty.

He used money his grandfather willed him to fill the envelopes. He handed out seven at the bus stop Monday and said there’s more left to give.

He plans to get his children in on the act as a way to teach them about the true meaning of Christmas, he said.

“It felt like I was doing what Christ would do if he was here,” the man said of his trip to the bus stop.

“Giving is what it should all be about -- Christmas, that is.”

He smiled when he learned Johnson already had a plan for her $100. She’s going to divide it up and, like the Santa, pass it on.

* Sara Schilling: 509-582-1402; sschilling@tricityherald.com