His gifts didn’t prove that he was rich. His gifts proved that he cared. And the smallness of his gifts proved that I could afford to care, too.
My long friendship with Percy began exactly 30 years ago when I saw him on the cover of a magazine as it lay on a coffee table in a friend’s house. He was a smiling gentleman sitting on a desk stacked with bags of money. The headline read, “Why is Percy Ross Giving Away $20,000,000?”
In the feature story, author Steven Kaplan explained how Percy Ross employed a small team of people to read the 4,000 letters he received each week asking him for financial help. A few of these letters got published each week – along with his response – in the 800+ newspapers that carried his syndicated column, “Thanks a Million.”
Paragraph 38 quoted Percy as saying that he had engaged two large advertising firms to help him turn his column into a radio show only to be told by each of them that it wasn’t feasible.
The week after I read that story, his readers had to plow through 4,001 letters because I decided to add my own letter to the pile.
Mr. Ross, I don’t want or need any of your money, but I read in Robb Report magazine that you wanted to syndicate a daily radio feature. I’ve done this 4 times already, so I’m familiar with the problems your people ran into and I know the ways around all those problems. Give me a call at your convenience and I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I look forward to hearing you on the radio!”
I received a phone call and a plane ticket to Minneapolis. Percy picked me up at the airport, and as we were walking shoulder-to-shoulder toward his car I said,
Mr. Ross, in about an hour and a half you’re going to know absolutely everything you need to know to get “Thanks a Million” on several hundred radio stations for free. As a matter of fact, you should be able to make a few tens of thousands of dollars a month from it. What I need you to understand is that I’m fully aware that I’m about to make myself obsolete. Not only will you not need to hire me to help you, you won’t need to hire anyone else, either.
“Why would you do that?” he asked.
“If this was the only valuable idea that I was ever going to have, I’d do my best to monetize it. But it seems to me that each of us will encounter more valuable opportunities in a single day than we could possibly pursue in a lifetime. But today isn’t work. Today I’m just helping you help others.”
Five, six, seven, eight, nine steps and still Percy hadn’t said anything. So I looked to my left.
And he wasn’t there.
Spinning around I saw him standing quietly in the parking lot, staring at me. He had stopped in his tracks while I was talking. We stood looking at each other a few moments, then he said,
How old are you, son?”
“I was fifty years old before I figured that out.”
About 90 minutes later Percy said with a smile,
Roy, I’m really glad you told me what you did in the parking lot of the airport because if you hadn’t, right now I’d be thinking you were the most naive and careless young man who had ever lived. You were right! I don’t need anyone’s help to do this. Not even yours. You have given me something I tried to buy and could not. And that doesn’t happen to me very often.”
Within 6 months, Percy was on 584 radio stations for free, including WNBC in New York city, a station whose ads sold for $1,000 apiece 30 years ago.
When Percy died on November 10, 2001, his Los Angeles Times obituary began with these words,
Percy Ross, the Minnesota junk dealer’s son who made and lost 3 fortunes but found his greatest joy in doling out silver dollars from the money he kept while smiling for the cameras, has died. He was 84.
Ross, author of the syndicated advice and cash giveaway column “Thanks a Million” from 1983 to 1999 and host of a companion radio show, died of natural causes Nov. 10 at his home in Minneapolis.
Often delivering checks personally, Ross gave $200 or $300 to fix a leaky roof, replace a stolen artificial arm or buy new lingerie for an elderly woman embarrassed to die in her worn-out underwear. He freely handed a silver dollar to anybody who interviewed or photographed him and to many who wrote.
But he minced no words in rejecting requests that he pay rent, medical or utility bills or credit card debts–all something he believed the debtor should pay himself.
“You know my motto, don’t you?” he told a Times interviewer in 1987. “He who gives while he lives knows where it goes. . . . I’m having a ball, the time of my life.”
My favorite Percy moment was his response to a woman who spoke of her impoverished old mother who had nine adult children, all of whom were as poor as she was.
Mama’s only pleasure is growing flowers but she can’t grow them in the winter. Right now the lumber yard has a greenhouse kit for just $400 and my brothers could build it in her backyard if you would only buy it for her.”
Percy’s response was priceless.
Yes! Your mother deserves that greenhouse and I want her to have it! I’m going to pretend that she had 10 kids and I’m number 10. I definitely want Mom to have that greenhouse but I’ve never in my life met anyone in America who couldn’t come up with 40 dollars for Mama. My 40 is enclosed. Please tell the others that we’ll be able to buy Mama’s greenhouse as soon as they contribute 40 dollars each.”
Percy has been gone for 15 years but there’s rarely a week when I don’t think of him and smile.
What Percy taught me is that each of us – no matter how little cash we have – is able to bring joy and comfort to others, if only we take time to care.
Shine your light into the darkness.
Roy H. Williams
After Cervantes invented modern fiction with Don Quixote, he wrote a story about a guy who heard a conversation between two dogs. That story’s only translation into English was in 1881 and it wasn’t very good. Anyway, 22 of you transliterated Cervantes’ dog story into modern English and I want to publish all 22 in a book that will include a Kurt Vonnegut story I believe was influenced by the Cervantes story. (I already got permission!) Anyway, I need to raise the necessary portraits of presidents in pale shades of green to make this happy book happen. Here’s a link if you’re interested. It will explain the nine dollars. Cervantes’ dogs have almost faded from existence but with your help, we’re bringing them back to life! Aroooooo – Indy
Rieva Lesonsky is an encyclopedia of small business wisdom. Whether it’s boosting sales, harnessing technology, overcoming obstacles or finding inspiration, Rieva can help. She was an award-winning editorial director at Entrepreneur magazine, now a syndicated small business writer and the CEO of her own successful company, GrowBiz Media. Join roving reporter Rotbart as he extracts practical advice and insights from Rieva that you can put to good use in your own business, right now, today. MondayMorningRadio.com