John Rice was a self-made millionaire who, at 2 feet 10 inches tall, was in the record books as one of the world's shortest twins. But neither his wealth nor his height is what people say they will most remember about him.
Mr. Rice and his identical twin, Greg, are household names in Palm Beach County, Fla., where they prospered in real estate, ran a motivational company and attained celebrity as the improbable television pitchmen for a local pest control company. Devoted civic boosters, they led parades, spoke at schools, visited hospitals and hosted charity events with a brio unimaginable for two who struggled from birth against dreadful odds.
So when John, the more extroverted twin, died unexpectedly Nov. 5, Palm Beach went into mourning.
He had just completed an errand at a local bank the day before when he slipped and broke his leg. He died while undergoing anesthesia for an operation to repair the broken bone. He was 53. An autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of his death.
As news of Mr. Rice's death spread, the flags at City Hall were lowered to half-staff. Tributes poured in to the local paper and a memorial Web site.
Some of the testimonials were sent by strangers whose familiarity with Mr. Rice came from random contacts: He was the Christmas elf who handed out toys to children in the hospital; the sporty figure who whizzed down the sidewalk on his Segway scooter; the debonair gent who often walked his Dalmatian, Zippo, around Lake Worth, the small town about 10 miles south of West Palm Beach where he lived in a yellow cottage he had renovated.
The Rice brothers were abandoned shortly after their birth at a West Palm Beach hospital Dec. 3, 1951. They lived in the hospital for eight months until Mildred and Frank Windsor became their foster parents.
Frank, a school custodian, and Mildred, a full-time mother and devout Pentecostal Christian, had two children and had recently lost a third in childbirth. They were smitten by the tiny babies and decided to give them as normal an upbringing as possible.
"Our mother, being wise beyond her formal education, was able to convey to us that, yes, we were always going to be different, but it was okay to be different," Greg Rice said in a telephone interview last week.
That homespun philosophy didn't take all the sting out of other children's taunts, but it kept the brothers going, even when Mildred died of cancer when they were in the eighth grade, and their foster father, Frank, died two years later. They took regular classes, shouldered their huge backpacks on Boy Scout hikes and played the cornet in the high school band.
From the start, John -- older than Greg by five minutes -- was the more adventuresome of the pair.
It was John's idea, for instance, to try real estate. He and Greg had been honing their sales skills since they were high school seniors, selling cleaning and personal care products door to door. John would take one side of the street and Greg the other, checking at the end of each block to see who had sold the most.
By the early 1970s, after a year of community college, they were training other salesmen for the company. When he got tired of the travel involved, John proposed that they switch to real estate and sell homes in Palm Beach.
They set a goal the first year of selling 50 houses. They sold 57. Eventually, they started buying and selling houses on their own. According to Greg, that's how they made their first $1 million.
In the late 1980s, they began a Sunday morning real estate show called "Television Home Hunt," which featured decorating, home improvement and moving tips in addition to showcasing houses on the market. The half-hour program was airing in 30 cities across the country before the Rices sold it in the early 1990s.
That show led them to the pest control business. They had approached a local exterminator, Hulett Environmental Services, to advertise on the program, but Hulett couldn't afford to produce its commercials. The Rice brothers offered to make the ads in exchange for a stake in the growing company.
Greg became Hulett's marketing director, and John wrote the commercials. Both of them starred in the ads, which featured them as wacky sendups of various types of household insects.
At Mr. Rice's funeral, billed as a "giant" celebration of his life, 500 mourners were in attendance.