The Ragpicker's Son

The life and times of blue-collar millionaire.

          By the time his Bicycle Party came around, the local press was beginning to tire of the playboy's flash and glitter. But Percy was just getting started. Flush from the excitement of his Bicycle Party, Ross was named Honorary Swede of the Year. As Swede of the Year, he had a slot in the Aquatennial Parade through downtown Minneapolis. "Riding in a parade is one thing," Ross suggests, "but doing something memorable is another thing. So I decided that since I had a hobby of giving silver dollars to people as a memento, why not pass out silver dollars to these guys? I had 20,000 silver dollars on hand. I took 16,500 of those coins, and I put them in bags and in pails. I had the aqua-jesters helping me out, and they would take these coins and they would hand them to the kids and I was going to do this for the whole parade route. Well, hell, I was never going to get rid of 16,500 coins that way--it would take me two years. So I started tossing them, and Jesus, they started trailing the parade. I had a crowd behind me like you wouldn't believe."

          Ross had taken the precaution of hiring security guards who were joined on the parade route by a few policeman. One of the guards remembers the scene. "We loaded bags of silver dollars in the back of this convertible," he says, "and we proceeded to the parade route and guarded them. About midway through the parade they got a crowd of people, and it got a little bit unruly. It was mostly just kids chasing the car. But the crowds were gathered all around. Ross wasn't in any danger; they just wanted to get some of those silver dollars. But he was getting concerned, and pretty soon he just took off and left us there."

          The man never saw Ross again; his last memory of the Honorary Swede of the Year was the tail end of a convertible speeding away in the hullabaloo. "He had more bags in the back of this car than he gave away," the guard recalls. "He didn't give away a third of the money. He took off. Left us standing in the middle of the street. None of us had much use for the guy after that--publicity seeker is what I thought of him." Publicity seeker was what a lot of people thought. After the Aquatennial Parade, Klobuchar wrote his last column on the subject of Percy Ross denouncing the "publicity shagger" in no uncertain terms, calling him a "hustler... who gives away money to the accompaniment of brass bands and press conferences."

          Klobuchar remembers Ross would call him, even before the Bicycle Party and the parade. "He would call me from Israel and Africa," recalls the retired columnist. "I was never quite sure what the calls were about. I think he sort of just wanted people to know what Percy was up to." But what really caused Klobuchar's distaste was not the publicity seeking per se--that's common enough among rich men. It was Ross's style. Ross ignored the boundaries of good taste. He flaunted his money in public.

          "He gave away money in ways that I thought were rather vulgar," Klobuchar offers, "tossing silver dollars onto the pavement of Nicollet Mall. I thought that was tasteless and I wrote about it. But I also found him kind of amusing. And he didn't mind needling for his activity. He just loved the publicity. I think the idea that it would seem like a vulgar act didn't occur to him. He thought of this as a way to present Percy as a humanitarian.

          "I have to say that despite the extent to which his giving away of money has his ego wrapped up, I think it's admirable," Klobuchar concedes. "But after his strewing of the Nicollet Mall with silver dollars I decided not to write any more about Perce. It didn't appeal to me. I look on him now, and did then, as sort of a flaky millionaire."

          But if Klobuchar had written his fill about the flaky millionaire, the news desks of local papers remained busy. The Minneapolis Tribune ran a story about the multifaceted Ross, featuring a posed photograph of the millionaire surrounded by his "stunning" staff of secretaries--the most svelte of whom cozied up like sex kittens, one on each of Ross's shin bones, while the supporting cast stood stiffly in the background. He is "a gracious, remarkably generous man," the newspaper proposed, "but he is also an egotist."

          On March 23, 1981, Percy Ross was in the headlines again--this time for being arrested on drug charges. A former employee, according to newspaper accounts, wore a wire to Ross's office, where he allegedly offered her cocaine. Cops moved in with a search warrant that turned up a little hash, and powder that proved later to be baking soda. They charged Ross with misdemeanor possession of hashish.

          It was an editor's dream. The Tribune mobilized a team of six reporters, who pulled the old stories from the files and rounded up the usual anonymous suspects. Ross had a drug problem. Or did he? Cops had harbored suspicions for years. A TV station and another paper launched investigations, only to drop the stories. Eventually Ross was acquitted on a technicality: In the first place, Minnesota law didn't clearly define hashish, and at any rate, the prosecution's chemist failed to prove the substance was indeed hash. Ask him today what happened and Ross will obfuscate: "Nothing happened. The whole thing was dropped." He insists he was no drug abuser, that he kept a couple of loose joints on hand for demonstrational purposes. "Sometimes people would come to me and say, 'Mr. Ross, I have children. What can I do about their drug problem?' They didn't even know what it was. And I would show them what a marijuana joint looked like. And there it was. It was in my desk for years."

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