Obituary: Percy Ross, flamboyant philanthropist

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2001 - 10:00 PM

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Percy Ross, the showy philanthropist whose personal brand of charity included tossing $15,000 in silver dollars to children as he rode in a parade, died Saturday at his home in Edina. He was 84.

Ross claimed to have given away as much as $30 million in 17 years through his syndicated newspaper column, "Thanks a Million," but he was reluctant to provide accounting when challenged.

"I've achieved my goal," he wrote in his final column, published in September 1999 in about 800 newspapers. "I've given it all away." But because of what he had received from readers, he said, "In many respects, I'm far richer today than when I started."

Longtime friend Isadore Crystal, 91, of Edina, said that Ross had been hospitalized recently, but that they visited on Friday and made plans to celebrate Ross's 85th birthday.

"He had been down since his wife [Laurian] passed away 10 months ago," Crystal said.

"He really wasn't himself since then. He had had more than a 60-year relationship with her, after all.

"He was a very generous man who helped people who had nowhere else to go. He was their last resort for clothes, a place to live, a wheelchair."

Ross paid for graduation ties and organ transplants. He once gave away 1,000 bicycles at a holiday party for children at the Minneapolis Convention Center, saying he wanted to be known as "the Jewish Santa Claus." He kept calendars turned to Dec. 25 throughout the year to remind people that every day could be Christmas.

He was proud of his humble origins as the son of poor immigrants from Latvia and Russia, growing up during the Great Depression in mining country on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He moved to Duluth in 1936 to work in the metal and fur industries.

"My father was a peddler, junk dealer, and jack-of-all-trades," he wrote. "Through his coaching and example, I became a survivor."

By the end of World War II, he had made a small fortune, and he came to Minneapolis in 1946. During the next 20 years, he went broke twice until he struck it rich with a company that made plastic trash bags. He sold the company in 1969 for $8 million, which he split evenly with his wife and sons.

Proud to be rich

Ross turned his wealth into celebrity in the 1970s, throwing spectacular parties at which he gave away jaw-dropping door prizes. The guest list for one in 1972 featured Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, at least 12 millionaire businessmen, sports stars and comedian Tom Smothers, brought in not to perform but simply to rub elbows. He threw another party that year for Twin Cities airport skycaps because they were "the world's greatest." It cost him $25,000.

He changed watches and rings daily to match his suits and ties. His fleet of luxury cars included a limousine once owned by Howard Hughes. He surrounded himself with attractive female staffers, including a bookkeeper who took a leave to pose for Playboy.

When others in the Twin Cities power elite called him gauche or tacky, Ross sniffed. "Frankly, I don't give a damn what they think of me," he said. "I'm proud of my wealth."

But the spectacular parties soon gave way to spectacular giving, funded by returns on investments in Oklahoma oil wells, a copper mine, Broadway shows and "about 50 Minnesota companies."

In 1987, Ross published a semiautobiographical book, "Ask for the Moon -- And Get It!" He told of hearing in 1977 "of the plight of 50 Vietnamese refugees," and how he "made available $50,000 to help them reach the United States and start a new life."

When the Star Tribune asked for verification, his attorney said that Ross had been contacted by refugee groups and that he had promised to make such a sum available if he were given more information, but they never got back to him.

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