The Ragpicker's Son

The life and times of blue-collar millionaire.

          The typical letter to Ross contains a hard-luck story and a pitch for cash. For example, Mr. R. H. from Mankato, Minnesota, writes, "My problem is that... due to corporate downsizing our plant will be closing. I'll have no job. My income is barely enough to get by from paycheck to paycheck, so I have no reserve. In order to better myself I need to get into a vocational training program.... What I need is $485 for materials, books and tuition." Ross fired back this note: "By sending you $485 to get re-skilled (and need I add the check's in the mail), you have the ability to turn your life around. God I love this job! Thanks for writing and making my day."

          Ross is long past retirement age. But as the years go by, he spends more and more time at his work: In the morning, he makes phone calls from home. He reads and answers letters at the office until 6 p.m., when he returns home for dinner with his wife. After his repast he goes back to the office. "Five nights a week, I come back. Saturdays and Sundays I work only during the days; I do not work at nights on weekends." Which is to say that seven days a week, for eight, 12, 18 hours a day, except for the occasional social call or day off, Ross sees the world through his correspondences.

          His correspondents are the working poor of America. And in their misfortune and their desperation, they write to The Blue Collar Millionaire for help. "I have acres and acres and truckloads and truckloads of incidents and anecdotes and stories as to why people think they need help." They ask for wheelchairs, glass eyes, and prosthetic limbs. They ask for automobiles, school supplies, tuition, food, clothing, shelter. Some of them lie (Ross says he will occasionally ask a lawyer to verify a story when the sum in question is over $1,000.) "There's always going to be people taking advantage of somebody else," he shrugs. "Listen, I invite people to take advantage of me, in a way. I let myself open. But so what?"

          When they choose the letters that Ross will read, his staff members "go by a gut feeling that this person is perhaps more worthy than this person." Then, from the narrowed pool of the deserving, he and his personal assistant pick the winners--the 30 or 40 who will get a check in the mail. "I like to help the people who fall between the cracks. They can't get anything extra from welfare, and they can't get a job from Honeywell, and they haven't got a car, they can't afford a baby sitter. I'll give them a little bit of help."

          He refuses to say exactly how much money leaves his hands. "To let out how much I give would give the wrong impression," he explains. "People would be marching up to my door. I could be inviting trouble." He says that each check he writes ranges from $400 to $2,500 and if that claim is accurate, he could be doling out as much as $15,000 to $80,000 a day. He isn't the only rich man to give money away, of course: charity is good PR and a good tax write-off. Dayton's has its 5 percent program, the McMillens, the Carnegies, the McKnights, and thousands of other families and estates run charitable foundations, and they make Ross look like a nickel-and-dime outfit.

          In fact, these days Ross says he could use a little bit of help himself. After 20 years of philanthropy, he says his fortune is drying up. "I'll have exhausted my financing in less than three years if I don't find a way to make this column self-sustaining," he announced in a recent column. Contributions come into his office to the tune of $10,000 a week; these, says Ross, are put aside for use after his death. In small-town papers, he sells advertising in the space under his column. He's even got his hand in a new business, a home-based sales outfit like Amway. And finally, he's put out a call for a millionaire to take his place. "Every day somebody will offer to discuss it with me, and we're taking those under consideration," he says. "But it's hard to find that one particular person who has struggled like I have, who knows what it is like to be poor, hungry, and have parents who were poor. It's kind of hard to find my clone."

          Percy Ross's clone would be a rich man who still talks of nightmares about the Great Depression. "My most memorable years," Ross says, "were my school years, '32 to the '40s, the Depression and coming out of the Depression."

          During those years, Ross lived with his mother and father in a small mining town in Michigan. He worked with his father, a junk man, collecting scrap metal from his neighbors. When the Ross family was in the business, junk men were spared digging through trash cans: "Dad had a big wagon, and we'd go through the alleys and streets. I'd ring a bell, the kids would come out, even the adults would come out, gunny sacks full of junk--magazines, old bottles, inner tubes, tires, pots, and pans--then dad would pull the scale out."

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