Jacqui Shine | Longreads | July 2017 | 23 minutes (5,700 words)
Percy Ross was a trash-bag tycoon, a serial entrepreneur who had made millions in plastics in the 1960s and relished spending it. But in 1977 he staged an astonishing reinvention. Ross would become a philanthropist — and not just any philanthropist, but one for people like him: a “blue-collar millionaire,” as he put it. He’d give money away the way he’d gotten it, in bills small and large, and always when it was needed the most. He’d portion out his millions in cash, in checks, accompanied by the satisfying clink of a silver dollar. Percy Ross would become, as the newspapers called him, “America’s Rich Uncle.”
Ross always said — boasted, really — that he’d made and lost two fortunes. It was his third business that stuck, the one in plastics. Ross had been a fur auctioneer in the 1930s — he met the woman who eventually became his wife at a craps table in Las Vegas while in the company of Clark Gable — and an organizer of farm-equipment auctions. In 1958, the story went, Ross borrowed $30,000 to invest in a failing plastics company. He knew nothing about the industry, and within five years he’d filed for bankruptcy — but with hard work, the help of his family, and a little innovation, he eventually turned the company around. Poly-Tech, as he renamed it, made plastic garbage bags. He liked to tell people he sold Poly-Tech for $8 million on the same day Neil Armstrong walked on the moon: July 20, 1969.
The story of the trash-bag turnaround was part of Percy Ross’s pitch-perfect rags-to-riches tale. Born in 1916 in Laurium, Michigan, a small town on the state’s copper-rich Upper Peninsula, Ross was the son of immigrants, desperately poor Jews from Russia and present-day Latvia. His father was a junk dealer who worked constantly, and so did his three sons. By the age of 6, Percy had begun making weekly rounds through the neighborhood with a wagon of farm eggs his father had bought for 12 cents a dozen, which he then sold to neighbors at a 3-cent markup. He sold magazines. He started his own business rebuilding car batteries. He would have shined shoes at the country club if they hadn’t rejected him for being too poor and too Jewish.
After the Poly-Tech sale, Ross began calling himself an “investment entrepreneur” and threw money at anything that interested him: Broadway shows, oil wells, a Hollywood production company. He’d even considered buying a professional boxing franchise and a failing Minneapolis soccer team. He dabbled in politics and was a fervent supporter of Hubert Humphrey. When the Minnesota senator lost his bid for the Democratic nomination in 1972, to George McGovern, Ross became the chair of Minnesota Democrats for Nixon and attended White House events and private parties with the president.
Ross surrounded himself with luxury and spared no expense. He matched his suits to his watches and his cars, of which there were at least eight — including a chauffeur-driven chocolate-brown Lincoln Continental limousine previously owned by Howard Hughes. He had apartments in London; Los Angeles; Rancho Mirage, California; and the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, where he also had a 3,000-square-foot office that had a color television and a telephone in the bathroom suite. He hired a staff of young, beautiful women with “IQs of at least 130,” he said. One later modeled for Playboy.
He spread his wealth via a series of legendary parties that were, according to one Minneapolis paper, “stacked with celebrities” and “plain folk” alike. Another wrote that his social sphere put him “in the same league as Truman Capote.” In May 1972, he spent $25,000 to throw a bash for the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport skycaps because, he said, they’d been so kind to him when he was a traveling salesman down on his luck. The party included dinner for 80 — on the menu were bone-in tenderloin steak, bananas Foster (listed as “Going Bananas for Percy!”), and champagne — and gifts for everyone, including a dozen roses for each woman in attendance. For entertainment, he hired a famous ventriloquist and chartered a Learjet to fly in boxer Joe Louis from Las Vegas.
[pullquote align=”center”]Ross surrounded himself with luxury and spared no expense. He matched his suits to his watches and his cars, of which there were at least eight — including a chauffeur-driven chocolate-brown Lincoln Continental limousine previously owned by Howard Hughes.[/pullquote]
Sometime in the mid-1970s, Ross hired Timothy Kehr, the director of a Minneapolis ad agency, to help him with a new project: “He just wants to give away money and be known for it,” Kehr told Backstage magazine in 1981. Charity might have been the impulse driving his generosity, but Ross wanted to position his narrative differently. He wasn’t just some cruise director for the famed and fabulous. He would give away money—and be known for it.
Percy Ross made his first foray into the world of philanthropy with a Christmas party. The event on December 24, 1977 was his one-man cotillion, less a party than a choreographed event. An advance press release had been sent to national media outlets. He had invited more than a thousand disadvantaged children — culled carefully from lists supplied by social-service agencies — to the Minneapolis Auditorium. There were piles of gifts for each child and an appearance by MLB Hall of Famer Rod Carew. A cameraman was on hand to record the evening’s finale. Just as the children were preparing to leave, Ross pulled up a stage curtain to reveal a crowd of brand-new bicycles. The kids went berserk.
It’s sweet to see this moment on film. The camera captures a little girl’s face exploding with joy as the curtain rises. It pans over to a group of kids who are scrambling onto the bikes, pedaling shakily in circles, trying out the horns. Ross pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and dabs at his eyes, smiling through his tears. It’s hard to be cynical about the engineering that went into producing this moment. Afterward, Ross said it was a journalist who first called him “the Jewish Santa Claus,” though this language seems to have come from Ross himself.
The Christmas party was picked up by the local media, and wire stories about the event turned up in papers as far as Colorado and California. Over the next few years Ross also pulled more publicity stunts — for instance, offering the Ayatollah Khomeini $50 million in 1980 to release the Americans held during the Iran hostage crisis. Two years earlier, he’d thrown $16,500 in silver dollars from the back of a moving convertible into the crowd at the 1978 Minneapolis Aquatennial Torchlight Parade. (No serious injuries were reported.)
Strangers began writing to Ross asking for his financial help. He tried to reply to every letter, sometimes with checks, others with advice. He set to work developing his responses into a newspaper column, which he first pitched to a local paper in 1980. In March 1983, Thanks a Million launched in seven papers; by July, it was in 80; within a year, the New York Daily News had picked it up. “The Philanthropist,” as Ross was sometimes billed, started receiving 4,000 letters a week. Percy Ross, aka “Ann Landers with a bank account,” went national.
Between 1983 and 1999, Percy Ross — the Jewish Santa Claus, the Blue-Collar Millionaire, America’s Rich Uncle — gave away between $20 and $30 million of his personal fortune, usually in amounts totaling less than $2,000, through Thanks a Million. In the process, he introduced the world to a new kind of celebrity: a philanthropist with an outsize talent for giving the people what they wanted.
It’s tempting to frame Thanks A Million as a product of the Reagan era, a trickle-down entertainment that attempted to cover gaps in readers’ budgets created by the government’s rollbacks of social welfare. Or maybe Thanks A Million was simply one conservative’s effort to encourage a private alternative to welfare. Perhaps Percy Ross, like Ronald Reagan, was assertively defining who deserved what.
For his part, Ronald Reagan didn’t like to talk about poverty unless he was maligning welfare programs for keeping Americans in the “poverty trap.” Instead, he talked about the “truly needy,” a group he began describing in his first term as California’s governor more than a decade before he entered the White House. Reagan’s truly needy were “the blind, the elderly, the disabled, and those children from families with little or no outside income and no employed breadwinner.” These were the people who deserved the support of government anti-poverty programs, and they stood in opposition to another Reagan villain: the greedy welfare queen.
He invoked her just 16 days into his presidency, when he announced a proposed federal budget that included an aggressive $35 billion in spending cuts and imperiled social-welfare programs serving low-income Americans. “Our spending cuts,” he said in an address to the nation, “will not be at the expense of the truly needy.” Days later, he told a joint session of Congress that “only the programs for the truly deserving needy” would remain untouched. This was, of course, just one variation on a much longer debate over who constituted the deserving poor in America, a cruel accounting that has always been at the edge of public discourse about charity. Nearly all philanthropic efforts are defined as much by a donor’s definition of the needy as they are by his or her generosity. Percy Ross was no exception, and it was in Thanks A Million that he got to lay out his own philosophy.
[pullquote align=”center”]Perhaps ‘Thanks A Million’ was simply one conservative’s effort to encourage a private alternative to welfare. Perhaps Percy Ross, like Ronald Reagan, was assertively defining who deserved what.[/pullquote]
Ross received thousands of letters a week, and his staff read them all. A trusted employee, aided by other paid readers, would winnow the week’s mail down to around 200 letters; then Ross and his assistant would handpick 30 or 40. Ross read and replied to each of these, often privately fulfilling requests for money. (Only three or four would appear in print.) Frequently he sent cash; sometimes he arranged for donations to be made by others or paid merchants in a writer’s hometown directly. Off-the-wall stuff was his favorite, which is probably less reflective of Ross’s beliefs and opinions than of society’s. Cat ladies, for example, took a hit when Ross wrote to Ms. V.W. of Oklahoma, who wanted money to build a dwelling for her twelve felines, “If I paid for your ‘cat house,’” Ross replied, “my wife would put me in the doghouse.”
At first glance, Thanks a Million seems to be a manifestation of the late-20th-century conservative zeitgeist of “personal responsibility.” When Ross’s column launched, promotional copy declared: “He doesn’t give money for mortgages, health, hospital, or utilities, and he’s not afraid to say no.” The latter was certainly true. Ross regularly declined to assist readers he thought undeserving, and most of his columns included one or two rejections, usually made with a pun or some snappy wordplay. Rejections were judgments — of the request itself, of the person making it, or of the values Ross saw embodied in it.
He energetically made examples of people and requests he found greedy, through both tongue-lashing and juxtaposition. “Sorry, but I don’t intend to help you,” he wrote to D. C., a medical student from a family of surgeons who wanted $70,000 for his education. “So…suture self.” This letter appeared below one from Mr. H.H., who asked Ross for a far more modest $250 so he could buy a window-cleaning safety belt and start his own business. He needed the help because he wanted to begin supporting his wife and two children, but no company would bond him because of a prior felony conviction. Ross granted the request with an encouragement to someday “remember that someone gave you a ‘chance’” and return the favor.
This was classic Percy Ross. He was a friend to those who demonstrated their honest efforts, and he gave no quarter to those who didn’t, regardless of their means; he had even less sympathy for people whose wealth and privilege made them feel entitled to his attention. For someone who understood his life as a series of lucky breaks, to take this stance makes perfect sense: He gave himself thousands of chances to reenact moments in his own life in which someone with power and wealth gave him a boost.
It is unsurprising that Ross found hardworking people to be the most deserving, but he didn’t always adhere to a Reaganomics vision. Without shaming or scolding, Ross regularly sent money to correspondents who wrote that they were on welfare. On Christmas Day, 1988, he printed a letter from a woman who wrote to “tell you what it means” to be on welfare, and how hard things were a year after going off it. “I’m not asking for anything, Mr. Ross. I’m just very disappointed in life, including the fact that nobody ever wants to give us a hand and help us out. Face it,” she wrote, “sometimes being able to help yourself is dependent on the roll of the dice.” With compassion, Ross wrote that he was sending a thousand dollars as a “shot in the arm of Percy Ross’ eternal optimism” — she did, after all, need a boost, even if she didn’t ask for it. But he also didn’t contradict her. “You’ve lived in the despair of the welfare trap,” he wrote, “only to say the grass isn’t any greener on the other side. That’s the most frightening aspect, and one which keeps some people from ever trying to get out.”
Despite his claims to the contrary, Ross gave people money for utilities and even for debts — though never for mortgage payments. In 1989, he sent a family living in a cold basement money for a space heater, and “some extra to soak up the added costs in your electric bill.” A few years later, he paid a $336 light bill for Ms. B. W., who worked to support her disabled brother and infirm mother, and a $400 bill for a woman whose medical bills had bankrupted her family. In 1999, the column’s last year, he paid a reader’s overdue property taxes — and paid the next year’s too. What made people deserving in Ross’s eyes was that they tried hard to solve their own problems; his money could in turn ease some pressure and, though it sounds corny, offer some hope.
Ross didn’t seem to care much about the possibility of getting scammed. He only investigated writers’ claims if they requested more than a thousand dollars. “When readers trust me with their confidential and innermost thoughts,” he wrote during the column’s first year, “I rarely question their sincerity.” And even when it turned out that Ross had been, as one letter writer told him, “taken,” he seemed unfazed. In that case, his correspondent tattled that Ross had given money to someone who claimed he needed it to fix a nonexistent grandmother’s roof. “It’s not the first time I’ve been taken, and it won’t be the last,” Ross replied. “Thanks for the info, but sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles.”
A certain degree of moralizing was also part of the equation, but Ross hesitated to impose his values on the people he helped. Over the life of the column, he paid for abortions, HIV testing, vasectomies, and tubal ligations — though he said he wouldn’t fund artificial insemination because “my money is committed to individuals who already exist.” None of this was particularly consistent: Sometimes he funded abortions and sometimes he didn’t; sometimes he sent money to trans women who needed new clothing and sometimes he declined. But none of it was off-limits either.
He also refused to allow his readers to impose their values on others. He sent $350 to a woman who said she wanted to make a donation to a pro-life agency — but he directed her to use it to support “a child in your community who is underprivileged,” someone who had “already been given a chance at life.” In the same column, Ross printed a letter from a reader offended that Ross had advised someone with AIDS to practice safe sex, who wrote: “Abstinence is the only safe sex there is.” Ross replied that comprehensive sex education for teenagers is “mandatory,” because the consequences are “more than severe — they’re deadly.”
What’s most moving about Ross’s brand of philanthropy is not that he wanted to provide hope, but that he wanted to provide dignity and pleasure. He sent warm coats for husbands, long underwear and warm socks for entire families, a set of satin sheets and pillows to a bedridden 71-year-old, and a supply of incontinence pads to enable a woman to fly across the country for her daughter’s wedding. He agreed to fund a nurse in a psychiatric hospital who wanted to buy cigarettes for her patients and sent another writer a case of snuff. He sent money to an older woman to live out her modest dream of playing the slots and eating a pastrami sandwich in Atlantic City, and he helped a woman keep her 92-year-old grandfather in girlie magazines for the rest of his life.
Almost immediately, Thanks A Million brought Ross the praise and attention he hungered for. He was profiled in dozens of newspapers and made regular television appearances. In July 1983, he was even honored from the floor of the United States Senate. David Durenberger, a Republican senator from Minnesota, described Ross as “a man with a heart of gold who gives pieces of it away in the form of silver dollars, checks, and cash” — a man ready to give “whatever someone in need needed.”
But not everyone was impressed with Percy Ross. In 1983, a Minneapolis reporter told People, “If you’re going to be a real philanthropist, you do it quietly and get your reward in heaven. Percy does it with brass bands and gets his rewards on the spot.”
But there is no such thing as a “real philanthropist.” Other than the literal translation of the ancient Greek (“love of humankind”), there is no clear definition of philanthropy. Instead, we have only a series of deeply institutionalized traditions. When Andrew Carnegie published The Gospel of Wealth in 1889, as industrialization was rapidly concentrating money in the hands of a new upper class, he outlined a capitalist humanitarianism that has come to define modern philanthropy. Carnegie was writing against the idea of charity, which he felt mitigated the consequences of poverty without addressing their root causes. The stratification of wealth was not the problem — this was “not to be deplored,” he wrote, “but welcomed as highly beneficial” and merely temporary. The solution was that the wealthy person should, indeed was obligated to, use his money for the “common good” and become the “mere agent and trustee” of his “poorer brethren.” In the last two decades of his life, Carnegie donated 90 percent of his wealth to philanthropic causes. Perhaps most famously, he endowed more than 2,500 libraries in the United States and across the globe. This was no mere exercise of noblesse oblige: Carnegie thought that successful industrialists were better stewards of wealth because they could apply their business skills to such projects.
[pullquote align=”center”]Ross wanted his brand of philanthropy to provide dignity and pleasure to those who asked for it. He sent warm coats for husbands, and long underwear for entire families. He sent money to an older woman to live out her modest dream of playing the slots and eating a pastrami sandwich in Atlantic City.[/pullquote]
Carnegie’s model has dominated American philanthropy in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to historian Olivier Zunz, author of Philanthropy in America: A History, charitable foundations are very much a modern American invention. Between 1915 and 1930, their number grew from 27 to more than 200. By 1955, there were 1,488 foundations in the United States, and today there are over 1 million 501(c)(3) public charities, all exempt from taxation as long and their profits are reinvested in the “common good.” The management of a charitable endowment is conducted according to market principles, he explains. It’s just that the profits generated are for beneficiaries, not stockholders — and the direct beneficiaries are causes and institutions rather than people.
By the 1980s, philanthropic institutions, as part of what we now think of as the nonprofit sector, were deeply intertwined with federal social-service provision, a relationship that, despite conservative arguments to the contrary, only deepened as the Reagan administration slashed government funding and enacted middle-class tax breaks. When Percy Ross began Thanks A Million he entered into a philanthropic world that had a very specific framework for what did and did not constitute charity.
In 1986, when Thanks A Million was syndicated in 150 U.S. newspapers, Town & Country included Percy Ross on an “honor roll” of the 186 “most generous living Americans,” made up of individuals who had each given away at least $5 million to charity. The list included boldface names we still hear about today: Estée Lauder; NYU patrons Laurence and Preston Tisch; two sisters of newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg; Leslie Wexner, who went on to fund the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University; Mark Taper, of L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum; and two Lincoln Center building namesakes, Alice Tully and Avery Fisher. Ross was in distinguished company — the writer, Dan Rottenberg, called him “America’s most flamboyant philanthropist” — but he also had little in common with the others. They had endowed hospitals, universities, and arts organizations and made massive donations. Ross sent small checks to as many people as he could, a form of the pass-the-hat charity Andrew Carnegie so thoroughly disdained. But that didn’t seem to bother Ross in the least. “I don’t particularly want my name on a hospital wing or a statue,” he told a Toronto newspaper in 1988. “It doesn’t do me one bit of good. I’d rather have that money spent on somebody who needs their teeth fixed so they can go out and get a job and not be embarrassed.”
Perhaps more significant than Ross’s placement on the Town & Country honor roll was his exclusion from a feature on Minneapolis philanthropy the magazine published the following December. The same writer who had called Ross the nation’s most flamboyant philanthropist, didn’t even mention his name here. In fact, he didn’t even leave rhetorical room for Ross. “That’s how it is in Minneapolis,” Rottenberg wrote, “where extraordinary people avoid calling attention to their extraordinariness.”
Percy Ross was too ostentatious, too blue-collar, and in Minnesota probably too Jewish. (When Ross backed Nixon in 1972, the Star Tribune ran a story headlined “Two Jewish Minnesota millionaires seek out fellow Democrats for Nixon” that included a long analysis of the state’s Jewish voters.) Even his own employees thought his new-money antics were tacky. In 1987, his longtime assistant, Connie Hanson, told a Los Angeles Times reporter that she “takes credit for her boss’s new constraint…‘Mr. Ross got rich very quickly and you know how that is. Throwing coins. Ugh! Certainly, we don’t do that anymore.’”
While there is no single definition of philanthropy, many people think of it like obscenity: They know it when they see it. And a lot of people didn’t like what they saw.
Part of the problem with Percy Ross is that it’s not difficult to poke holes in his story. Over the years, the Minneapolis media certainly tried. A particularly bad year for Ross in this regard was 1981. The trouble began in late March, when the police raided his office on a Sunday afternoon. They arrested Ross and seized what was initially described by newspapers as “an unspecified amount of suspected cocaine, hashish and marijuana” — though there was only a “misdemeanor amount” of pot, and the white stuff turned out to be baking powder. But Ross received a felony charge for possession of hashish was excuse enough for KSTP-TV to run a previously taped interview in which Ross had admitted to past drug use. The Minneapolis Star Tribune published a front-page profile of Ross headlined “Drug link blurs Ross’ image” fewer than 48 hours after the arrest. The writer suggested the arrest could threaten Ross’s ability to secure a deal for a syndicated column “tentatively called ‘Ask a Millionaire.’”
He was acquitted of the felony possession charge in late July, but the damage had been done. Reporters digging for dirt found a deposition from a former employee stating that Ross had committed perjury in an unrelated civil suit brought by a contractor. The matter had been settled to Ross’s benefit. This, too, received front-page treatment and resulted in an investigation by the county attorney. Though the office declined to press charges, the Minneapolis Tribune reported this news in a piece that explained in great detail an allegation that Ross had enlisted his staff in forging letters that he submitted as evidence in his favor.
All this coverage was cruel — or so the papers’ readers said. In the wake of the drug arrest, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published at least five letters from readers; one called the coverage “an ostensible ploy to breed sensationalism,” and the rest echoed this sentiment. The letter writers agreed that Ross was generous and kind, that the police department and the papers had, as one man wrote, “darkened the name of an honest and charitable person” whose good deeds were far more important than whether he used drugs. The paper received a similar response in 1987 when it ran an exposé titled “Percy Ross: Is He As Generous As He Says?” A reporter had combed tax returns made public in Ross’s civil suit to prove that his charitable deductions were far lower than he said they were. For one thing, Ross occasionally promised to pay for things local and state government agencies already funded. The paper also found that Ross often facilitated donations for readers, rather than necessarily forking over his own cash. This point seemed to especially rankle: all the bicycles he gave away at the 1977 Christmas Party had been donated by the manufacturer. After all, arranging in-kind donations is something philanthropic organizations do all the time. But this seemed like sour grapes to some readers, who wrote in to complain.
Eventually, the Star Tribune had nothing to say about him at all. No Minnesota newspaper ever ran Thanks a Million, but Ross always said it didn’t bother him. After the Star Tribune called him a fraud, he told a South Dakota newspaper he wasn’t surprised: “They say a prophet is never recognized in his own hometown.”
But the newspapers might not have been entirely off base. It was hard to measure Ross’s generosity. He refused to confirm his net worth for reporters; he seemed to give away most of his money without funneling it through his charity, the Sharing is Caring Association; and he handled his affairs through multiple accountants and lawyers. When his column ended in 1999, all Ross would say was that he had given away “between $20 million and $30 million,” claiming there was no way of knowing for sure. Ross had no trouble making bold pledges — $50,000 to support Vietnamese refugees, $50 million to release American hostages in Iran, money to repair Robert F. Kennedy’s vandalized headstone — but they often weren’t accepted. At the same time, he was so committed to documenting what he did contribute that many of his gestures were easily confirmed, either by his own records or by newspaper coverage; local papers often reported on the donations Ross made to people in their communities.
The more serious offense is perhaps that Ross appears to have lied by condensing his life into a Horatio Alger story. He liked to say that he “went broke twice,” always implying that his businesses collapsed. But that’s not true. Ross wasn’t broke when he bought the plastic bag company in 1958. He continued to work under the name Ross and Ross Auctioneers even after he purchased Poly-Tech. (Ross and Ross Auctioneers was still operating out of Ross’s offices at the time of the drug raid in 1981.) As late as 1965, according to court documents, he and his wife had a profitable sideline publishing a national advertising tabloid for heavy-equipment sales. In fact, between 1958 and 1962, the Equipment Advertiser generated an annual income of $13,000. When adjusted for inflation, this amounts to more than $100,000 in today’s currency, and that income was protected when the Poly-Tech Corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. (Over the years, Ross and Ross Auctioneers was itself embroiled in civil suits filed in courts across the country. Ross was accused of withholding profits from auction clients; passing bad checks after another creditor had garnished his account; and firing an employee just before an auction, then refusing to pay him his share of the proceeds.) The story of Poly-Tech’s turnaround wasn’t quite as it seemed, either. Ross always said that he split the $8 million he made from its sale with his sons and wife — but it wasn’t to thank them for their generosity in helping to build the company. It was because his sons had sued him.
Maybe Ross didn’t mind being taken by a good storyteller because he was one too. And maybe he thought these were his just deserts. His career in philanthropy was an effort to make amends for … something, anyway. He was “spreading the gospel … spreading the word,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1988. “I’m on a mission … The good things I’ve done outweigh the bad ones. And people believe in me.”
Whatever else anyone said about Ross or his column, his 30 million readers were unfailingly supportive. But they didn’t just read Ross’s column. They were philanthropists too. Struggling Americans, particularly recent immigrants, have long relied on the generosity of their neighbors and friends for financial assistance, especially through mutual-aid societies. Today, when we donate money to total strangers — sometimes in exchange for a reward, sometimes not — we call it crowdfunding. But in the pre-internet age, when money flowed in through self-addressed stamped envelopes, the recipients were true strangers, unbound by any form of community, willing to help out a name without a face, and not receive any form of acknowledgement.
In the last eight years of his column’s run, Ross mobilized his dedicated readership to raise huge amounts of money for a handful of causes — his fans sent 15,000 children’s books to a California schoolteacher who’d already shelled out $1,000 for supplies for her class of low-income second-graders. They sent money to a family who lost two children in a devastating house fire, and to the family of an LAPD officer killed in the line of duty. At one point, 22,000 readers raised a little over $200,000 to fund a heart and lung transplant for a 28-year-old woman. And when Ross printed a letter from a woman raising money to build a YMCA in Marquette County, Michigan, the organization received more than $50,000, most of it in dollar bills.
What Ross’s readers accomplished was astonishing. The impressive thing here wasn’t necessarily that Percy Ross gave individuals an opportunity to contribute to good causes. Small gifts from individuals have made up the bulk of charitable giving in the United States for decades. In 1981, Olivier Zunz writes, individuals with incomes below $50,000 were responsible for 85 percent of charitable giving. (That year, an estimated 638,000 Americans were millionaires; in 2016 there were 10.8 million) Instead, Ross was creating a kind of communal safety net, like the old mutual-aid societies and community chests to which struggling Americans once turned for help.
If Percy Ross wasn’t all he appeared to be, it didn’t seem to matter to his readers, who found his column inspiring — corny puns, showy gestures, and all. They were devoted to him. Newspapers that dropped Thanks a Million often received reams of mail from readers. When the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette discontinued the column, a reader wrote, “Why in the world you threw him away I can’t imagine. I want to join all the others who have written to you to say, ‘Please bring back Mr. Ross.’”
Thanks a Million ended quietly, without stunts or drama. “When I started this column, I made a solemn vow to continue helping people until I had given away all my money … As of today,” he wrote on September 19, 1999, “I’ve achieved my goal.”
There aren’t any buildings named after Percy Ross, and that’s how he wanted it. One of his favorite slogans was “He who gives while he lives knows where it goes.” (“Money is the root of all happiness” was another.) He wanted to share, he wanted to inspire, and he wanted to be thanked. Did he want to be remembered? It depends on whom you ask.
When I tracked down Nancy Webber, who’d worked for Ross from the inception of Thanks a Million to its end in 1999, she told me that the once-voluble philanthropist didn’t want his legacy to extend beyond his own life. “His family,” she wrote in an email, “was not entirely supportive of his methods for distributing his wealth.” This, of course, was no secret. Ross never concealed the fact that his family, like other wealthy Minneapolitans and many journalists, disapproved of his philanthropy. “My two sons don’t believe in my system. They will not carry on this calling when I die,” he told a reporter in 1996. “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.” But Miss Webber (as Ross called her, in print and in person) told me one more story. Several months before his “sudden and unexpected” death in 2001 at the age of 84, she and Ross “held a conversation about his legacy,” she said. “He asked that after his own death, if I could safeguard the family’s privacy and let the story of Thanks a Million simply fade into obscurity. I told him then, as I’m telling you now, that I would honor that request for privacy.”
It’s a nice coda to the story of America’s Rich Uncle, but it’s hard to believe. Even if he didn’t want a building, and even if he was concerned for his family’s safety — it doesn’t necessarily mean Ross wanted to be forgotten. What he wanted was to be a part of people’s stories, as many stories as possible. His silver-dollar souvenirs and $500 checks probably didn’t change many lives permanently, but he hoped his recipients would remember him. It’s what he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1987: “If you help people, they remember you. They tell their children and their children’s children.” It’s a sweet, frail ambition — perhaps the most expensive kind.
Jacqui Shine is a writer and historian whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Awl, Atlas Obscura, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.