A stranger carries on son's legacy

It was a Friday night, and 14 adults from the same neighborhood, mainly retirees plus one granddaughter, headed out on their monthly group dinner. They chose the Outback Steakhouse off Celanese Road in Rock Hill.

These are people who don't spend money like sailors on shore leave. Some are pushing 90. Retirement in this economy means you likely will always have less money tomorrow than today, and what you have must last the rest of your life. Some are widowed. A few couples round out the mix. They enjoy each other -- and people at home most of the time sure love a night on the town. Once a month, you live a little.

"We just figure that we want to get out as a group once a month, enjoy each other's company," said the group's ringleader, Jack Tucker.

Tucker's wife died in December. He likes the fellowship. His grown granddaughter, Erica, goes with him each month.

So all sat down and ordered, and you can be sure nobody ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. Those who like a drink had one. Those who don't didn't.

Then after the Styrofoam came to take the leftovers home, the waitress came up to the tables and announced: "The bill has been paid."

The people at the table were stunned.

"For everybody?" asked a woman named Peggy.

Yes, everybody.

The total was well more than $200.

"I was stunned," said a woman named Sarah.

"So gracious," said a guy named Buddy.

"Shocking," said Erica Tucker, the granddaughter.

The waitress had minutes before come up to restaurant manager Jeff Brown to tell him that this stranger wanted to pay the whole tab for the group. She had to ask the boss if she could simply because Brown said this has never happened before in his seven years there.

"A table might buy another table a round of drinks, but this was unbelievable," Brown said.

Now this group wanted to know who paid the bill. Who is this superhero of the dusk who pays a bill for 14 strangers?

The waitress pointed out a man who was sitting in another part of the restaurant. The man sat by himself. Quietly, this group of 14, one by one, filed over to see why he paid the bill for total strangers.

He looked so alone.

Turned out that Tucker knew the guy from church, but he was the only one of the 14 who had ever seen the man before. Yet, the man paid the entire bill. Including the tip.

The man told these men and women that his son had died months before in a motorcycle wreck. The son was just 21.

This man sat there, and he cried those tears that come from so deep there's no stopping them. These men and women, mothers and fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers, held the hand of this man as he told them his son was the kind of guy who did nice things for people, and this act of paying for strangers' meals on a Friday evening was just a way of carrying on his son's legacy.

"Losing a child is a such a shock," Tucker said. "You prepare for losing the older people in your life. You know it will happen. But people our age know that you are not supposed to outlive your child."

Several of the older people who were there that night said in all their years, nobody had ever done such a random act of kindness for them. One of the older ladies who received that meal said the man who paid for everybody to eat is "like an angel. Or a hero, in real life. Maybe this is how he wants to pay it forward for the next person. Maybe this is how goodwill is born."

The goodwill flowed to the entire restaurant staff that night, the next night, even now.

"The man didn't want anything in return," Brown said. "It made everybody here feel good. The mood around the place was good, even days later. It was cool. It was great."

Tucker remains uplifted even now.

"I remember how people kept saying 'thank you,' and this man told every one of them, 'You are welcome,'" Tucker said. "Sometimes you meet somebody in life, you know they gave something a lot bigger than money. This man gave us a part of himself, and maybe because all of us were really grateful, we gave him something, too."

Tucker told me this man's name. I tried to find him, but had no luck. That's probably best. I'm told he didn't want to make a big deal of what he did. So for now, he remains anonymous.

Maybe a superhero doesn't have to wear a cape. Or fly. He just comes into restaurants with sorrow -- in comic books and movies that's often the reason men turn into heroes anyway -- then gives of themselves to strangers. The hero always leaves without the recipients knowing the superhero's true identity.

All they know is a superhero trying to mend a broken heart lives among them.