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Flashy Philanthropy : Millionaire Everyone's Rich Uncle

January 19, 1987|BARRY BEARAK | Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — They are after his money. And why not? Percy Ross, the millionaire newspaper columnist, is giving it away.

So they send him letters, about 1,000 a day. The poor need him to pay their rent, the lame their doctor bills. Brides want big weddings and teen-agers fast cars. A country singer in North Dakota needs bus fare to Nashville.

God has told them to write, some of them say. Voices have whispered the name Percy Ross into their restless sleep. His face has appeared in the bathroom mirror, summoned from the steam.

They send him unpaid electric bills and snapshots of their children, arrows of ink pointing to underfed bellies. If only he would buy them a bag of groceries or a washing machine or a headstone for mama's grave.

Like Lottery Tickets

Some photocopy their requests and mail them in 40 times over, like tickets to a lottery. A few say it is enough to simply tip them to a good stock. They include their phone number and the best time to call.

Others are too proud to ask for anything but would appreciate a loan. Their letters arrive pinned to their collateral--tarnished jewelry or a tattered deed or a soldier's Purple Heart.

Percy Ross, rich uncle to an entire nation, picks and chooses among them. "Isn't this neat?" he says of it, sifting through his mail, the needy and the greedy and the bizarre all before him like so many characters out of Dickens. "I'm having a ball, the time of my life." So he is: The making of his money--the deals in furs and plastics and heavy machinery--never made him feel as important as this giving it away. He has become a patron to the common man. His pocket is their temple.

Out in the Open

And this very much pleases Percy Ross, for he has always thought himself a remarkably wise and generous man, and he does not mind who knows it. Charity, more than mere prosperity, satisfies a craving he has to get himself and his money out in the open where people can see them.

In 1978, during the Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight Parade, he tossed 16,500 silver dollars from the back seat of a red convertible, ripping into bag after bag of the coins as a pleading crowd swarmed the car.

The year before, he gave a Christmas Eve party for 1,000 poor children, and after all the ice cream and singing he yanked up a huge curtain, surprising each of them with a new bicycle.

Now he has his very own syndicated newspaper column where he hands out money right along with advice. It is called Thanks a Million and it is carried weekly by more than 125 newspapers--not this one, but the New York Daily News, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Indianapolis Star.

It reads like Dear Abby, if only Abby would put her money where her mouth is. It reads like:

\o7 Dear Mr. Ross: I'm 71 and on S.S. What I'd love is to buy a few new pieces of underwear because mine are all worn out. I hope you can help me. I can't bear the thought of leaving this world in old underwear. --Mrs. M.L., Providence, R.I.

Dear Mrs. L.: You certainly write a brief letter, but don't give it another thought. Life is too short to get your "undies in a bundle" over such a detail. My check will cover your needs.

Just like that, he swoops in, judges a soul needy and a heart pure. He and his staff edit for brevity and grammar and reply with a few puns. The check is in the mail.

"You know my motto, don't you?" Percy Ross asks, reciting in cadence: "He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes."

And he does love to talk about where it goes.

Stolen Arm

"Miss Webber, remember the fellow who lost his artificial arm when he went swimming?" he says to an assistant.

"Oh, that was awful," she dutifully recalls. "He took it off, and some teen-agers stole it."

"You know what I told him?" he says, letting a few seconds go by before revealing the cleverness of it. "I said I'd be glad to lend him a hand."

The two of them laugh, tickled by the memory, though, as Ross is obliged to confide, reading the letters can occasionally turn into a dreary business. He used to take them home with him, but then he could not sleep.

Heaven knows, there are more pitiful people out there than any single rich man can help, he says. America is in worse shape than anyone realizes. And those darned credit cards! They are plastic magnets, pulling everyone into trouble.

"People ask: How does it feel to be rich?" Ross says. "Well, I'm not rich enough. Not even the U.S. government is rich enough!"

Some Frauds

Money is hard to come by and it always has been. Interest rates are down. Money barely grows in banks these days, let alone on trees. So Percy Ross, giving it away, has to be careful. Even then, he ends up reading:

Dear Mr. Ross: Boy, did you get taken. You recently sent a friend of mine $200 so he could supposedly fix his grandmother's leaky roof. This guy doesn't even have a grandmother. . . . I'm here to tell you he spent the money on new speakers for his stereo.--E.N., Huntington, W.Va.

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