Percy Ross, the Minnesota junk dealer's son who made and lost fortunes but found his greatest joy in doling out silver dollars from the money he kept while smiling for the cameras, has died. He was 84.
Ross, author of the syndicated advice and cash giveaway column "Thanks a Million" from 1983 to 1999 and host of a companion radio show in the 1990s, died of natural causes Nov. 10 at his home in Minneapolis.
Often delivering checks personally, Ross gave $200 or $300 to fix a leaky roof, replace a stolen artificial arm or buy new lingerie for an elderly woman embarrassed to die in her worn-out underwear. He freely handed a silver dollar to anybody who interviewed or photographed him and to many who wrote.
But he minced no words in rejecting requests that he pay rent, medical or utility bills or credit card debts--all something he believed the debtor should pay himself.
"You know my motto, don't you?" he told a Times interviewer in 1987. "He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes. . . . I'm having a ball, the time of my life."
Ross wound down the column and closed his wallet two years ago, saying he had accomplished his goal of giving away his fortune. He estimated that he had handed out about $30 million, and told his faithful readers of the 800 daily and weekly newspapers in which the column ran: "You have given me so much over the years. In many respects, I'm far richer today than when I started."
Not one of Ross' gifts was anonymous, which earned him brickbats as well as praise.
"I don't like anonymous givers," he told The Times. "I think you should let the word out."
Besides, he told anybody who would listen, "I like to see the smile."
Exercising his passion earned Ross a lot of bad publicity in his hometown Minneapolis newspapers, which never carried his column. (Neither did the Los Angeles Times, but among those that did are the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Denver Post.)
Ross' demeanor, wrote a Times reporter in 1987, was: "I'm rich. I'm warmhearted. I'm wonderful. How many frames of film are left in the camera?"
One of Ross' stunts, which helped earn a publicist's assessment of him as "self-promoting and a bit vulgar," was tossing out 16,500 silver dollars from the back seat of a convertible as he rode in the 1978 Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight Parade. An eager crowd swarmed the route, wreaking havoc.
Similar early philanthropies, such as throwing a $25,000 steak-and-champagne dinner for airport skycaps in 1977 because "they were always nice to me when I was poor," won further criticism.
After Ross started his column, he was labeled everything from Daddy Warbucks of the Modern Age to Miss Lonelyhearts with the Dough and the Dear Abby of the Downtrodden. He was called a flamboyant, compulsive philanthropist.
Ross clearly loved publicity as much as personally expressed gratitude. He carefully stored and often perused videotapes of every public giveaway and every television show on which he appeared, including "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," as well as bales of newspaper and magazine clippings.
In 1987 he published his autobiography, "Ask for the Moon and Get It."
Growing up poor in the copper country surrounding Laurium, Mich., he helped his immigrant parents by peddling eggs on his sled. He saved up 1,050 pennies but never had enough for a new bike. His father bought him a used clunker for $3 when he was 13.
That number of inadequate pennies in his savings jar stayed with him. He used it to bet in Las Vegas, where he met his wife, Laurian. And in 1977, he gave new bikes to 1,050 poor children in Minneapolis as the finale of a party on Christmas Eve.
Ross, who grew up devising get-rich-quick schemes, started in the fur business, trading muskrat and mink pelts in Duluth, Minn. He made one fortune and lost it. He went on to auction heavy equipment and later government surplus goods, chalking up more booms and busts.
But in 1958, Ross bought a small plastic bag company in Eau Claire, Wis., for $30,000. After plunging into bankruptcy, he turned the firm around and in 1969 sold Poly-Tech Corp., maker of Tuffy bags, for $8 million.
Ross divided the money among his hard-working family--$2 million each for his wife, sons Steven and Larry and himself. He invested his share, and also acquired B.F. Nelson Co., a manufacturer of paper boxes.
And Ross, whose personal fortune has been estimated at more than $20 million, vowed to give it all away. (Ashamed of his poor boyhood clothing and lack of conveyances, he did indulge in a lavish wardrobe, richly decorated offices and homes and a fleet of luxury cars.)
Loyal to those who had been loyal to him from the beginning when he felt scorned by the copper barons, Ross threw a party for 1,500 childhood friends and gave away a top prize of a gold Cadillac.
He planned another lavish party for half a dozen couples who had been his closest friends and gave each wife a mink coat--fulfilling a promise he had made when they admired his wife's fur 14 years earlier.
But he needed a more organized way to hand out his money. The bicycle party led to that.
The next day, Christmas Day, former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey called from his sickbed shortly before his death and told Ross: "When you gave those bicycles to those children, it was the greatest act of kindness I've ever seen. You should be writing a newspaper column, like Dear Abby and Ann Landers, and people should know you're available. . . . Joy, joy, joy, and thanks a million for being such a nice guy."
When Ross began the weekly column seven years later for Register Tribune Syndicate, he called it "Thanks a Million."
Of the 2,000 letters he received daily toward the end--mostly requests for handouts, a few offers to contribute and notes of gratitude--Ross best liked reading the thank-you notes.
Thanks, after all, seemed worth more to him than money.