The Ragpicker's Son

The life and times of blue-collar millionaire.

          Percy Ross--salesman, entrepreneur, millionaire, self-styled philanthropist--turns 80 next week. Like a lot of people his age, he is a compulsive storyteller. By now most of the stories have been told a hundred times already: on Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Joan Rivers, The Today Show, the CBS Morning News, PM Magazine, Late Night America, and Late Night with David Letterman, on the Hour of Power and on 60 Minutes and 20/20 and Larry King Live (three times!) and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And that's not to mention the reporters from USA Today, People, and countless other newspapers and magazines the world round. Percy Ross has told and retold the tale of his life so many times to so many people that the script has become dog-eared. But if some people are prone to tire of it, Ross is not one of them.

          One of his favorite scenes is the Bicycle Party. "I think I was 10, 12 years old, before I got my first bike," he begins. "My father found a bike that he bought for a dollar or two dollars. He gave it to me as a present. Gee, I was glad. I fixed it up. Cost me a couple bucks. All my other friends had brand new bikes. But mine was a funny used bike. A fellow across the street straightened out the spokes. My schoolmates and my friends called it a boneshaker. Anyway, later on in life I figured, what the hell, that first bike was so great to me. So I decided I was going to have a Bicycle Party. I decided I was going to try to get together 1,000 of the poorest kids in Minneapolis and St. Paul and I was going to have a Bicycle Party."

          Orchestrating his party took two years. Ross rented the Minneapolis Auditorium. He convinced the police federation to help him out. He found a terrific deal on 1,050 bikes, had them assembled, and arranged for their secret delivery to the auditorium. He hired a Darth Vader, a Mickey and Minnie Mouse, a magician, a ventriloquist. He hired Rod Carew and wrestler Vern Gagne. He hired a cameraman to commit his beneficence to 16 mm film. He hired a doctor and an ambulance, just in case. He arranged popcorn, presents, and hot dogs. ("Kosher hot dogs," he notes, "I could afford to pay a little bit extra.") He sent press releases. And he hand-picked the guests, 60 percent boys and 40 percent girls, with the help of charities and social service agencies.

          On Christmas Eve, 1977, a handful of yellow school buses groaned through the icy morning picking up children, the guests of Percy Ross. All that day amid streamers, decorations, and uniformed policemen, the children reveled with gift bags, chocolates, candy, and treats. It was like a dream come true, like a visit to Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory without any mishaps. At the end of the day, Ross himself took the stage for the final surprise.

          "I'm on the stage," Ross recalls, "and the spotlight is on me. I asked the electrician to put the lights off, gave the signal, lights on me. I said 'Children, we've had a great day. I want to thank you. But I got a last surprise for you now. Now keep looking at me, and you'll soon know what the surprise is. Keep looking at me. Keep looking at me. Keep looking at me.'

          "I gave the signal while the lights were on me, and all of a sudden that great big curtain behind them went up. And the lights went on. And I said, 'Children, turn around. There's one for each of you.' They turned around and you won't believe what happened. It was unbelievable. Those kids ran for those bikes. Unbelievable. It was the highlight of my whole life.

          "Made every paper in the country, by the way."

          Here at home, the papers covered the event with some bemusement. "The Jewish Santa Clause," the Minneapolis Tribune's headline winked. But grudging or no, the newspaper and TV coverage made him famous. Letters started pouring in. Ross began to get mail from all over the world. Some of the correspondents congratulated him on his charity; more asked him for money. Percy Ross had found his calling. Thirteen years ago, Ross launched a syndicated column called "Thanks a Million" in which he publishes three letters every week, along with his responses. According to his syndicate, the column appears in over 600 papers across the country.

          Ross is known to his staff as The Blue Collar Millionaire, though he arrives at his Edina office dressed for work in coat and tie. He works in an opulent setting: Recessed fixtures illuminate a set of original neo-Renaissance oil paintings in the lobby of his office suite. Aboriginal statuary, talismans, and primitive gods stand at attention in halogen-lit displays. In a nearby warehouse, a dozen members of his staff comb through the two or three thousand letters he receives every day, weeding them down to a neat pile of about 250. And every working day, the Blue Collar Millionaire sits down to read them at a burnished desk as substantial as the finest casket.

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