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John Rice, 53; Turned Physical Liability Into an Inspiring Asset

November 24, 2005|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

John Rice was a self-made millionaire who, at 2 feet 10 inches, was in the record books as one of the world's shortest twins. But neither his wealth nor his extremely diminutive stature are what people say they will most remember about him.

Rice and his identical twin, Greg, are household names in Palm Beach County, Fla., where they prospered in real estate, ran a motivational company and attained celebrity as the improbable television pitchmen for a local pest control company.

Devoted civic boosters, they led parades, spoke at schools, visited hospitals and hosted charity events with a brio unimaginable for two who struggled from birth against dreadful odds.

So when John, the more extroverted twin, died unexpectedly Nov. 5, Palm Beach went into mourning.

He had just completed an errand at a local bank the day before when he slipped and broke his leg. He died while being administered anesthesia for an operation to repair the broken bone. He was 53. An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of his death.

As news of Rice's death spread, the flags at City Hall were lowered to half-staff. Hundreds packed his funeral a week later, and tributes poured in to the local paper and a memorial website.

Many of the testimonials came from old classmates, colleagues, childhood friends and former teachers. Other messages were sent by strangers, whose familiarity with Rice came from random contacts: He was the Christmas elf who handed out toys to children in the hospital; the sporty figure who whizzed down the sidewalk on his Segway scooter; the debonair gent who often walked his Dalmatian, Zippo, around Lake Worth, the small town about 10 miles south of West Palm Beach where he lived in a yellow cottage he had renovated. He was such a fixture at Lake Worth city commission meetings that officials kept a stool by the podium just for him.

"John was truly a Palm Beach County institution, and for us natives," said Bart Arnold, one of dozens of residents who wrote to the Palm Beach Post last week. "It feels like a part of our soul is now gone."

The Rice brothers were abandoned shortly after their birth at a West Palm Beach hospital Dec. 3, 1951. They lived in the hospital for eight months until Mildred and Frank Windsor became their foster parents.

Frank, a school custodian, and Mildred, a full-time mother and devout Pentecostal Christian, already had two children and had recently lost a third in childbirth. They were smitten by the tiny babies and decided to give them as normal an upbringing as possible.

"Our mother, being wise beyond her formal education, was able to convey to us that yes, we were always going to be different, but it was OK to be different," Greg Rice said in a telephone interview last week.

"She said, 'It's up to you to determine what your real value is going to be in life. You're like a couple of dimes in a bunch of nickels.' "

That homespun philosophy didn't take all the sting out of other children's taunts, but it kept the brothers going, even when Mildred Windsor died of cancer when they were in eighth grade and their foster father Frank died two years later.

They took regular classes, shouldered their own huge backpacks on Boy Scout hikes and played the cornet in the high school band. They seemed so at ease with themselves that other people usually found it impossible to resist their charms.

A former high school classmate, Susie Biganski Kendall, told the local paper last week that when Spin the Bottle was played at Saturday night get-togethers, all the girls "hoped and prayed like crazy that they would get a kiss from John or Greg, THE most popular boys in school."

From the start, John -- older than Greg by five minutes -- was the more adventuresome of the pair.

One day, in the middle of watching a TV western, he dashed outside to the bicycles that had languished on the porch for years because the twins -- then in grade school -- were too short to ride them.

He'd been engrossed in a shootout scene in which one of the characters got away by jumping off a balcony onto his trusty steed.

"A little lightbulb went off in John's head," Greg recalled, and the next thing he knew was that his brother had taken one of the bikes and propped it next to the bumper of the family car.

He positioned the pedal high, then climbed up on the bumper and jumped, pushing down on the pedal as he aimed for the seat. After many falls, he managed to maintain enough momentum to pedal to the end of the driveway and turn wide to return to the top. Soon Greg was launching himself in a similar manner, teetering, crashing and trying again until he, too, got the maneuver right.

"John was always the test pilot for me," Greg said. "That's the way we did a lot of things in life."

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