In an online conversation yesterday, somebody asked if anyone had ever heard of a rich guy who had a newspaper column and was famous for letting people write to him asking for money and then giving it to them.
I replied that not only had I heard of him, I knew that man. Born in 1916, Percy Ross was the son of poor immigrants who grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the middle of the Great Depression, he moved to Minnesota with not much more than the clothes on his back, and within eight years had made a small fortune. He invested in several businesses and made millions in the plastic bag industry.
Never forgetting his humble upbringing, Ross believed it was his duty to share his wealth with those less fortunate, and he did so in many ways. He always carried a supply of silver dollars in his pockets to give to kids, along with advising them to always be honest, work hard, and set goals. At a holiday party for children at the Minneapolis Convention Center, he gave away more than 1,000 bicycles. He had so much fun doing it that he decided to do even more, and came up with his famous Thanks a Million newspaper column, which ran in over 800 newspapers coast to coast, from big city dailies to small town weeklies. My small town newspapers were among them.
The columns were very popular, and people would write in asking for money to do everything from getting dental work down to buying a new car or money to start a business. Ross obviously did not grant every request, and sometimes he was downright blunt about it, such as in the case of a young man who wanted $1,500 to bail himself out of jail on his third DUI charge. Ross replied, telling him that as long as he remained behind bars, the streets were a little safer.
Ross obviously could not do it alone, and he had a large staff to handle over 4,000 letters a day that came in. But he enjoyed calling newspaper editors and people who wrote in. About once a month, my secretary would knock on my office door and say, “Percy wants to talk to you.” More often than not, it was just chitchat, asking about my family and how things were in our small town. He had a tremendous sense of humor, and I always looked forward to his calls.
He also asked the local newspapers to help him fulfill people’s wishes, as I did on two occasions. The first was a widow who had lost her husband and was struggling to make ends meet with four children. She was in desperate need of a washing machine and dryer. He had me find new units locally and arrange for them to be delivered to her home and to personally deliver a $5,000 check to her from him. On the second occasion, a gentleman in the Phoenix area was dying of AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion while working for a charity in Central America. He said all he wanted was enough to get the clutch replaced in his Jeep and new tires so he could enjoy driving through the desert before he died. Instead, Ross had me find a used Jeep in excellent condition and deliver it to the man.
An interesting thing about that event is that a car dealer in our town had just the right vehicle, but I went there three times to explain the situation and arrange for Ross to overnight him a check, and he was always too busy to see me. So I bought the Jeep in Phoenix. When the story came out in my paper, the local dealer called me and angrily asked why I went out of town to buy a Jeep. I told him because he blew me off three times. He said, “Oh, I thought you wanted to sell me an ad.” Guess what? People who sell ads drive cars, too, and they have to buy them from someone.
Ross gave out $30 million over the years, helping to pay for everything from recreation centers to organ transplants. I was a founder and on the board of directors of a women’s shelter in our rural county, and it came up in our conversation once. He asked me how it was funded, and I said through donations, since the good old boys who ran the county did not deem it “necessary” and worthy of tax dollars. He asked how the donations were going, and I admitted it was a struggle every day to keep the doors open, but we somehow managed to make it. The next day Fed Ex delivered a check for $100,000 to me at my office to be used for the shelter.
Ross said his goal was to give away every penny he had, and he did just that, finally closing down his Thanks A Million column after 17 years. In his farewell column, he wrote, “I’ve achieved my goal. I’ve given it all away. But you have given me so much over the years. In many respects, I’m far richer today than when I started.”
Percy Ross died in 2001, just 10 months after his beloved wife Laurian. At the time of his death, a longtime friend said he had never been himself after she passed away and often talked of their 60 years together.
I still have a silver dollar he gave me, in a holder he autographed, for helping him complete the wishes from those two people. It means so much more to me than its cash value. Rest in peace, Percy. You were one of a kind.
Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an audiobook of undone, the first book in my buddy Jason Deas’ Burt Bigsley mystery series. To enter, all you have to do is click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn this evening. Note: Due to the high shipping cost of sending printed books and Amazon restrictions on sending e-book codes to foreign countries, only entries with U.S. addresses and e-mail addresses are allowed.
Thought For The Day – Life could be worse. Milk could have pulp.