Christmas may be long past, but northwest Iowa's mysterious "Santa" is still at work spreading the kindness.
Pilot-Tribune readers may remember a Christmastime feature on Caroll Kies, who operates a hometown diner in Odebolt and bakes some of the meanest cinnamon rolls and cherry pie you've ever tasted.
When a bearded man wandered in off the street long after she had closed up shop one day, asking about a meal, Kies didn't have the heart to turn him away. Not knowing if he could pay, and with the ovens turned off and cold, she scrounged in the rerigerator for three pieces of chicken she had saved and a slice of her homemade pie. They talked about the winter storms, and the gloomy economy, which is taking a toll on the little cafe like everyone else.
The man, who said he was from Storm Lake and in town to play Santa Claus for an event, gave her a $5 bill in payment, and as he went out the door, looked back. "Have a Merry Christmas, Caroll," he said.
Later, she found the $100 bill he had hidden under his plate.
She felt guilty taking the money, but had no idea of the benefactor's identity. She used most of the funds for donations to good causes - a Gospel Mission, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. And she thought that's where the story ended.
After the story appeared in the newspaper, "Santa" recently sent a letter to Carol, saying he had enjoyed the article and that he appreciated the special meal he had been given on her off hours. "It isn't the gifts you have but the gifts you give away that are important," he wrote, wishing her a good year.
Enclosed was another $100 bill.
And a calling card. "Acts of Random Kindness: Pass it On," it reads; on the back "Remember God Loves You."
Realizing that she is struggling, other customers have responded with cards including generous gifts of funds. Just a little tip for all those slices of pie and cinnamon rolls she has shared over the years.
Carol says she is humbled by it all. "How can I ever quit and leave here?" she says of the friendly little cafe.
While she shied away from the publicity, her husband Roger encouraged her to share what had happened. Readers from across northwest Iowa have been touched and commented to them; some people have made the trip to Odebolt especially to see the diner where Santa Claus showed up hungry.
And maybe the story isn't finished yet.
Not long ago, Carol received a call from a young woman who asked if her diner was open. Caroll said that it was closed and she was just finishing up cleaning. The woman was silent for a moment, and then said she had a 7-year-old daughter who wanted to meet her.
Caroll said she had no food prepared, but that her door is always open and that they would surely be welcome.
Another silence. What the girl really wanted to know, the mother said, was if Carol could describe Santa's beard for her. Knowing what the woman was talking about right away, she did: describing the gray and white brush in the best detail she could recall. The caller seemed satisfied, and they never heard from her again.
They can only assume that somwhere, a little girl had figured out the identity of the mystery Santa.
Finally, the story seems to have taken on a life of its own. Harvey Keller, the retired former barber in town, received a call from his daughter living in Washington State, that their newspaper in Seattle had somehow heard of the Santa story and run it as "Santa's Visit to Caroll's Kitchen."
"The feedback has been unbelieveable," Roger says. A student of Lakota culture, he chalks it up to, as the Sioux once said as a greeting to their relations, "Mahtakuway Oyasin" - translation, "Good gift, Good deed, Good story." Just in case Storm Lake's mystery Santa is reading, the Kies wanted him to know, and to say thank you for all he has done.
"Perhaps everyone needed a warm story in this cold winter; perhaps a happy story is needed in this bad economy," Roger says.