But Ross' gaudiest act of philanthropy occurred on the night before Christmas, 1977, when he invited 1,050 disadvantaged kids to a full-bore pig-out in the Minneapolis Auditorium. Stuffed and dreamy-eyed, the youngsters were moving toward the door when a curtain went up, revealing 1,050 gleaming Raleigh bicycles! The next day former Veep Hubert Humphrey could barely contain himself. He called his old pal Percy and said, "When I saw on TV what you did for those kids, I cried. I'll never forget their faces. It was joy, joy, joy!"
The question is, however: Why isn't everyone as pleased as punch with Percy? "Percy Ross is a publicity hound from the word go," explains Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist Robert T. Smith. "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." Ross, very much a man of this world, agrees: "I don't need any hospital wings or libraries named after me. I want to enjoy giving my money away while I'm alive."
The son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, Percy grew up in the copper country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. In 1933 Ross, then 17, was caught dealing in stolen brass. "Percy," said the sheriff, "I have a warrant for your arrest." "Yes," said Ross, eyes downcast. "I'm guilty. I knew the metal was stolen. But I didn't think I was harming anybody. I guess I'm at your mercy." Standing behind the sheriff, the victim of Ross' wrongdoing was so charmed by his candor that he offered him a job. In 1939 Ross married Laurian Aver-book; they have two sons, Steven, 41, who owns a Texas plastics company, and Larry, 36, a salesman for his father's box-manufacturing business. During the '40s and '50s Ross made and lost a fortune, first in the hide-and-fur trade and later auctioning war surplus equipment. Then in the '60s he guided a plastic bag business from near bankruptcy into a huge concern that he sold for $8 million.
After providing so much lively copy for reporters, Ross has become something of a news scribe himself. He writes a weekly column called "Thanks a Million," which is syndicated in 84 papers nationwide. In it he responds to his readers queries—3,000 to 5,000 a week—with advice and sometimes money. "Our group has been planning a trip to the moon for the past two years," an organization called the Adventurers wrote not long ago. "We thought you might give us the $10 million we need. Please answer this letter (yes or no) so at least our group knows you got it and read it." Answered Ross, "Got it...Read it...No!"
On the other hand, a woman touched Ross with this missive: "I am 87 and very healthy. I am dating a man of 92, also very healthy. He wants to go out dancing all the time, and I am not a good dancer. Could you please help me with enough money for dancing lessons?" Responded the megabuck Mister Lonelyhearts, "In the interest of furthering your romance, and since it takes two to tango, Arthur Murray Dance Studio at 677 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. is waiting for you. I've paid for your lessons. Save a waltz for me."
Minneapolis tycoon Percy Ross may own a Lincoln Continental that once belonged to Howard Hughes, but he's no sad-sack recluse frittering away his days worrying about germs. To the contrary, Ross, 66, positively flourishes in the glare of the public eye, which he clearly seeks out at great personal expense and with much the same diligence he once applied to gouging a living from scrap metal, junk batteries and muskrat pelts. Take the $25,000 steak-and-champagne bash he threw in 1977 for the skycaps at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Or the way he lit up the Minneapolis Aquatennial torchlight parade by tossing silver dollars worth $16,500 to hundreds of ecstatic children. Or his offer (not accepted) of $50 million to the Ayatollah Khomeini for the release of the American hostages in Iran. (Ross, who's worth maybe $20 million, was prepared to drop $1 million himself and to muster the balance from friends.)