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John Rice, 53; Turned Physical Liability Into an Inspiring Asset

Times Staff Writer

John Rice was a self-made millionaire who, at 2 feet 10 inches, was in the record books as one of the world’s shortest twins. But neither his wealth nor his extremely diminutive stature are what people say they will most remember about him.

Rice and his identical twin, Greg, are household names in Palm Beach County, Fla., where they prospered in real estate, ran a motivational company and attained celebrity as the improbable television pitchmen for a local pest control company.

Devoted civic boosters, they led parades, spoke at schools, visited hospitals and hosted charity events with a brio unimaginable for two who struggled from birth against dreadful odds.

So when John, the more extroverted twin, died unexpectedly Nov. 5, Palm Beach went into mourning.

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He had just completed an errand at a local bank the day before when he slipped and broke his leg. He died while being administered anesthesia for an operation to repair the broken bone. He was 53. An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of his death.

As news of Rice’s death spread, the flags at City Hall were lowered to half-staff. Hundreds packed his funeral a week later, and tributes poured in to the local paper and a memorial website.

Many of the testimonials came from old classmates, colleagues, childhood friends and former teachers. Other messages were sent by strangers, whose familiarity with Rice came from random contacts: He was the Christmas elf who handed out toys to children in the hospital; the sporty figure who whizzed down the sidewalk on his Segway scooter; the debonair gent who often walked his Dalmatian, Zippo, around Lake Worth, the small town about 10 miles south of West Palm Beach where he lived in a yellow cottage he had renovated. He was such a fixture at Lake Worth city commission meetings that officials kept a stool by the podium just for him.

“John was truly a Palm Beach County institution, and for us natives,” said Bart Arnold, one of dozens of residents who wrote to the Palm Beach Post last week. “It feels like a part of our soul is now gone.”

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The Rice brothers were abandoned shortly after their birth at a West Palm Beach hospital Dec. 3, 1951. They lived in the hospital for eight months until Mildred and Frank Windsor became their foster parents.

Frank, a school custodian, and Mildred, a full-time mother and devout Pentecostal Christian, already had two children and had recently lost a third in childbirth. They were smitten by the tiny babies and decided to give them as normal an upbringing as possible.

“Our mother, being wise beyond her formal education, was able to convey to us that yes, we were always going to be different, but it was OK to be different,” Greg Rice said in a telephone interview last week.

“She said, ‘It’s up to you to determine what your real value is going to be in life. You’re like a couple of dimes in a bunch of nickels.’ ”

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That homespun philosophy didn’t take all the sting out of other children’s taunts, but it kept the brothers going, even when Mildred Windsor died of cancer when they were in eighth grade and their foster father Frank died two years later.

They took regular classes, shouldered their own huge backpacks on Boy Scout hikes and played the cornet in the high school band. They seemed so at ease with themselves that other people usually found it impossible to resist their charms.

A former high school classmate, Susie Biganski Kendall, told the local paper last week that when Spin the Bottle was played at Saturday night get-togethers, all the girls “hoped and prayed like crazy that they would get a kiss from John or Greg, THE most popular boys in school.”

From the start, John -- older than Greg by five minutes -- was the more adventuresome of the pair.

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One day, in the middle of watching a TV western, he dashed outside to the bicycles that had languished on the porch for years because the twins -- then in grade school -- were too short to ride them.

He’d been engrossed in a shootout scene in which one of the characters got away by jumping off a balcony onto his trusty steed.

“A little lightbulb went off in John’s head,” Greg recalled, and the next thing he knew was that his brother had taken one of the bikes and propped it next to the bumper of the family car.

He positioned the pedal high, then climbed up on the bumper and jumped, pushing down on the pedal as he aimed for the seat. After many falls, he managed to maintain enough momentum to pedal to the end of the driveway and turn wide to return to the top. Soon Greg was launching himself in a similar manner, teetering, crashing and trying again until he, too, got the maneuver right.

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“John was always the test pilot for me,” Greg said. “That’s the way we did a lot of things in life.”

It was John’s idea, for instance, to try real estate. He and Greg had been honing their sales skills since they were high school seniors selling cleaning and personal care products door-to-door. John would take one side of the street and Greg the other, checking at the end of each block to see who had sold the most.

By the early 1970s, after a year of community college, they were training other salespeople for the company. When he got tired of the travel involved, John proposed that they switch to real estate and sell homes in Palm Beach.

They set a goal the first year of selling 50 homes. They sold 57. Eventually, they started buying and selling houses on their own. According to Greg, that’s how they made their first million dollars.

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In the late 1980s they launched their own Sunday morning real estate show, called “Television Home Hunt,” which featured decorating, home improvement and moving tips in addition to homes on the market. The half-hour program was airing in 30 cities around the country, including Los Angeles, before the Rices sold it in the early 1990s.

That show led them to the pest control business. They had approached a local exterminator, Hulett Environmental Services, to advertise on the program but Hulett couldn’t afford to produce its own commercials. The Rice brothers offered to make the ads in exchange for a stake in the growing company.

Greg became Hulett’s marketing director, while John wrote the commercials. Both of them starred in the ads, which featured them as wacky sendups of various types of household insects. In John’s favorite spot, they are termite Elvis impersonators who sing -- to the tune of “Hound Dog” -- “We aren’t nothing but a termite, eatin’ all the time....”

In other spots, they battled bugs in outer space and termites on Noah’s Ark. Greg portrayed the voice of reason -- “Let’s call Hulett!” -- while John was the do-it-yourselfer whose bumbling always led to disaster.

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Since 1990 they produced 45 ads, which won industry awards and were seen in several states, including California, in versions customized for other pest control companies.

The Rice brothers also appeared on “Real People,” the “Maury Povich Show,” “That Quiz Show” and in 13 episodes of “Foul Play,” a sitcom that featured them in roles as landlords.

In between those jobs, they ran their businesses. They founded a motivational company called Think Big and a plant nursery called Tree Feet Tall that specialized in dwarf citrus trees.

Along the way, John learned to ride a personal watercraft, snow ski, parasail, fly a plane and make stained glass. He played the harmonica with bands in local bars.

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“John just loved every minute of every day,” said longtime friend Michael Kintzel, whose West Palm Beach company produced the Rices’ bug ads. “He loved to make people laugh. He just had fun. His size never got in the way of anything.”

In 1990, he was hit by a driver who ran a stop sign. The accident fractured one of the vertebrae that connect the skull to the spine. He wore a full-length body cast for a year, then spent 18 months in the hospital for physical therapy.

“He had to relearn just about everything,” his brother said, including how to walk and feed himself.

Greg said he never once heard John complain or pity himself during the arduous recovery. “That was just another test,” John said of the accident.

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When the holidays grew near, John wheeled into the Hulett Christmas party with festive lights strung on his hospital bed. By the end of the decade, he was back doing all the things no one expected of a person who was barely 3 feet tall, such as piloting a pontoon boat to the Bahamas.

Pontoons are generally thought of as party boats for rivers and lakes, not for travel on the open sea.

The one John bought didn’t even come with a radio. Nonetheless, he and three stalwart friends safely crossed the 50 or 60 miles from West Palm Beach to the Grand Bahamas. The return took twice as long because of rough waters, but they made it in about 11 hours.

The feat was vintage Rice.

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“A person is not measured from the top of their head to the bottom of their feet,” he often said, “but from their shoulders to the sky. It all depends on how big you think.”

At his funeral, billed as a “giant” celebration of his life, 500 mourners were in attendance. At his graveside, a dozen bagpipes performed “Amazing Grace.”


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