The Ragpicker's Son

          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.  

          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."

          Young Percy vowed to rise above poverty. "I knew that if I worked hard, saved my money, invested it properly, eventually I would rise above all the other children. When I went to high school even, I remember there was the Glee Club, there was the football team, there were athletics. I worked." He learned his father's trade. When war broke out again, scrap metal became a prized commodity, and Ross apprenticed to a metal-works in Duluth which also dealt in fur pelts. He rose through the ranks to become a fur buyer. He worked hard, saved his money, and when he'd accumulated enough, invested it in a fur auctioning business. It went belly up in five years.

          "I was broke," Ross says, "I owed my relatives and friends a $150,000. My money was gone. I was in debt. People were screaming for their money. I had two children to feed and my wife. I was a self-made auctioneer. I thought, if I can auction furs why can't I auction other things?" In the early 1950s he organized an enormous three-day construction equipment auction at the State Fairgrounds. "I advertised that sale all over," Ross crows. "I had people coming in from Cuba--they came from all over, okay? I think I took in about $60,000 or $70,000," he says, figuring in his head. "After I got through I had $50,000 dollars! And I was off to the races. I was back in business."

          Over the next several years, he worked hard, saved his money, and invested it several times over. But the formula never seemed to work. It was the plastic bag company that finally put him back in bankruptcy.

          Ross bought it with a bank loan in 1958. By his reckoning it was a no-risk investment. "They buy their resin for 15 cents a pound and they sell the bag for a dollar a pound," he remembers thinking. "Hey, what a business. I want to buy that business." A year later, he was $100,000 in the hole.

          In bankruptcy court, his creditors gave him a chance. His sons, Stephen and Larry, and his wife came to work at the factory. "We worked nights. Eighteen-hour days. My wife would make food. We finally turned the business around. It wasn't easy. Stephen hitchhiked to Chicago to sell our product. We wanted to save the plane fare. He slept in flophouses, dollar a night with bedbugs. Didn't go to the big hotels. But we made sales.

          "These bags we made, they weren't the best, because we used recycled material whenever we could. You could tell. There were fisheyes. They were cloudy. We couldn't afford to buy all the good stuff all the time. Now we were out to make money. They could buy better bags from Mobile. They could buy better bags from Chippewa. They could buy from Bemis. They looked nicer. Well, I had an idea. Let's color our bags! Then you couldn't see the defects. That took care of that."

          The flophouses and the cheap materials eventually paid off. Ross says it took just three years to pay back his creditors. But then his two sons, Stephen and Larry, filed a lawsuit that threatened to bring it all down around his ears again. In the suit, 26-year-old Stephen claimed credit for the company turnaround and painted his father as a spendy boss, frittering precious profits away on frivolous construction projects and alienating the staff. The lawsuit, which tried to wrest control from elder Ross, was settled in 1969, when the family sold the company.

          That sale seeded the investments that would make Ross a multimillionaire and fund his life of letter writing. The dealer in rags had at last found his riches. And he turned his attention to the task of spending it.

          In those first heady days of real wealth, The Blue Collar Millionaire acquired a reputation for lavish parties. Other rich men might do the expected thing: Settle down to a private life in the suburbs, play golf and the real estate markets. Not Ross. He'd worked hard, saved his money, invested it, and with a little luck, gotten rich. Now it was time to rise above the rest of the children. But how? It was his parties that first caught the attention of Jim Klobuchar at the Minneapolis Tribune. "He gives elaborate, unorthodox parties, where the door prize may be a $30,000 mink coat or Tom Smothers," Klobuchar wrote in a 1973 column, "as it was last summer when Percy brought together Jeno Paulucci, Curt Carlson, Hubert Humphrey, Rosalie Butler, and a supporting cast of hundreds. It follows that Percy is a celebrity collector who drops names with a seismic force surpassing even that of Barbara Flanagan."  

          Shortly before his Bicycle Party put Ross's name in headlines across the country, a party of another sort drifted across Klobuchar's radar--a Valentine's Day bachelor bash at a Minneapolis Radisson suite. Ross was a "reputed millionaire," Klobuchar wrote by way of introduction, "who now devotes himself largely to his favorite causes, including politicians and people who appreciate good old-fashioned ostentation." Klobuchar got the scoop from Tom Jardine, a working stiff at the Radisson hotel. He recounted the glitz in his column: the staff with heart-trimmed name tags, the pink champagne, the machine that blew bubbles throughout the suite on the 22nd floor. And the women! "I have never seen so many beautiful women assembled under one roof in Minneapolis," Jardine told Klobuchar. "I felt like a kid in a fudge factory."

          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."

          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.

          "I get 2,000 reminders every day how bad off people are," he says. "Nobody really knows except me. I know. Other people know it but they won't admit it. There is a lot of poverty in this country. And the difference is so great between those that have and those that don't have. It is really a shame. I am ashamed of the human race."

          His shame extends even to his family. It is a point of some suffering for Ross that his philanthropy has driven a divide between him and his children, who are both rich men themselves. "My children and my wife," he says, "they don't believe in my philanthropy. My wife does, and she helps me once in a while. But my two sons don't believe in it. They believe that people should not get the kind of help I give them. I don't think they realize, I'm not giving them money, I'm giving them hope along with a few dollars. I'm giving them some incentive that they can't get elsewhere. But my sons don't believe in my system. They will not carry on this calling when I die.

          "My two boys still don't believe what I tell them, what happened in the Depression years. Bread a nickel a loaf and you couldn't afford it. They still don't believe it. My grandchildren, I'm sure they wouldn't believe it either. It was demeaning. They called us junk dealers. They called us kikes. They called us sheenies--I didn't like that name. They called us all kinds of names.  

          "It was rough. The taunts and jeers and teasing that we had when I was a kid, my parents taught me to let it roll off our backs--it won't last forever." The Blue Collar Millionaire leans back in his chair. There's a pile of thank-you letters on the desk before him. His telephone rings every minute or two. Against his skin he feels expensive cloth and leather. With a flip of his signet ring, he waves the junk dealer away. "Listen," he says with a flourish, "we survived."

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