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.