The Ragpicker's Son

The life and times of blue-collar millionaire.

          But if the prosecution failed to make its case, the trial signaled the end of Ross's days of easy celebrity. His name dropped out of the local news. When he launched his column in 1983, not a single local paper carried it. And to this day none of them do. The last time Ross stole a local headline, it read "Percy Ross: Is he as generous as he says?"

          The Star Tribune's review of his 1987 autobiography, Ask For the Moon--And Get It!, seemed to sum up the local consensus: "I was there the night Percy Ross threw $15,000 worth of silver dollars at kids. It was during an Aquatennial night parade in the 1970s. Gauche. And I was there when Ross dropped dollar bills from a helicopter over a professional softball game in St. Paul. Gauche."

          These days, Ross has retreated into the world of his letters. The days when he threw lavish parties appear to be over. Every year his leather chair seems to get a little bigger. Hour by hour, day by day, he reads and rereads the thank-you letters and the calls for help. It's a simple transaction, really; cash in exchange for gratitude and a sense of purpose. "They don't all ask for money. Some of them just want some advice. How would I advise them in these particular circumstances? Some people just want to talk to me because they're lonely. Quite a few letters come from people who are left in nursing homes. Nobody visits them any more, and would I write or give them a call or send them a card."

          In other parts of the country, he still gets offers to recite his script on television, or for a newspaper reporter. The glamorous secretaries have departed, replaced by his assistant, the rather severe Miss Webber, a former nurse with spiky Annie Lennox hair and a gash of lipstick. "She helps me put my thoughts in writing in such a way so that they hear from a blue collar millionaire," Ross says. "Not a white collar millionaire. A blue collar. Dark blue collar. I was there myself."

          Even as he doles out his cash in increments, the thought of losing it eats at him, and the thought of making more occupies him. Even giving it away is an affliction. "It is a burden. Everybody looks to you like, 'You've got this and I should have part of it.' It's not easy," he says. "But listen. Money is the name of the game. Without money you can't help God help the poor. Mother Theresa can, but even she has money behind her. Lots of money. It takes money to make money. It takes money to be a philanthropist."

          To that end, Ross is promoting a scheme he hopes will pay for his column after his death. This latest venture involves a company called The People's Network (TPN), an Amway-like home-based business. TPN is a satellite network featuring self-help programming. Recent broadcasts included "Rituals of Wealth" with Tod Barnhart, "Money Talk" with David D'Arcangelo ("David shares The Greatest Business Opportunity in the History of the World"), and "Live Your Dreams" with Les Brown ("Have direction in your life, as well as a back-up plan in case something doesn't work out"). The home-business component is a catalog of self-help products, mainly tapes and books, with tie-ins to the programs, along with "wellness" products: vitamins, enzyme-activated formulas, Alpha and Beta-Hydroxy Acids. Ross has an advantage over the average Tupperware salesman; he has an audience. He's not averse to using it. In a recent column, Ross suspended his normal format and plugged the home sales routine. "For a modest investment of about $500," he wrote to Mrs. L. R. in St. Louis, Missouri, and the other million or so readers of his column, "you can start your own home-based business."

          Sometimes, when he's reading his letters or driving to and from the office, Ross's face goes slack, the air seems to go out of him, and his thoughts turn toward death. "I never expected to live this long, I really didn't," he muses. "I visit a lot of hospitals. You can learn a lot from hospitals. What the hell good is money when you can't get well? When you're lying in a bed? What are you going to do with your money then? I'm going to be lying in that bed one of these days. I know it. It happens to all of us. Unless I get struck by lightning while I'm on the golf course. The good Lord was good to me. I hope I've been fairly good to him, even though I'm not a very religious person.

          "I believe in all the concepts of religion. They teach you good things, you know. I think I earned my rewards. If you're nice to people they'll be nice to you. What does it cost to smile? If you help a lady open up a door, pull out a chair.... If she drops something, you pick it up for her; there's a guy that's hungry, you buy him a meal. What's the big deal? You've got more than you need for yourself. I can't take it to the grave with me.

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