MINNEAPOLIS -- Imagine receiving dozens of thank-you notes every time the mail arrives. Imagine that tens of thousands of strangers want your help -- and you have the task of separating the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the unworthy. Imagine that you are constantly praised for your generosity, your kindness, your love of humanity.
Such is the lot of Percy Ross, millionaire, philanthropist and syndicated newspaper columnist. After a career devoted to making money, he is busy giving it away.
There are plenty of takers. The requests pour into his Minneapolis offices each day by the sackload, spanning the spectrum of human need from a bus fare to a Porsche, a bag of groceries to a Carribean cruise. They come from Alaska and Australia, California and China.
From Jackson, Miss., comes the hard-luck story of a 29-year-old farmer whose right arm was ripped from its socket in a tractor accident. "I'm pleased to lend a hand," Ross writes back, promising to pay for an artificial arm.
A 27-year-old dwarf writes from Seattle, describing her difficulty in climbing aboard a public bus because of the high steps. "Throw away your bus schedule," replies Ross, announcing the gift of a Pontiac station wagon.
From Atlantic City, N.J., arrrives a one-sentence plea: "My bookie needs $2,300 this week or I'll need a wheelchair the following week." The reply is equally succinct: "Tough luck."
The world's most unusual agony columnist operates out of a luxurious suite of offices in Minneapolis. A map on the wall pinpoints the locations of the 150 newspapers across the United States that carry his weekly column. A 10-person staff sifts through letters, fields telephone calls, dispenses checks and generally bolsters the boss' already considerable self-esteem.
"It's incredible. I'm on a mission. My mission is to encourage people to share," muses Ross, a sprightly 71-year-old who looks like everyone's favorite uncle. "Some millionaires get fun out of yachts and Lear jets. I get fun out of sharing."
"But you are such a humanist, Mr. Ross," chimes in Jeanette Kittelson, his personal assistant, using the formal style of address that is obligatory in the office.
The Percy Ross view of the world -- and his place in it -- was forged out of a deprived childhood and a long struggle to prove his worth. His father, a poor Jewish immigrant from Latvia, was a peddler. Growing up in Minnesota during the Depression, the young Percy was taunted with names like "Christ-killer."
"I knew that one day I would rise above these people," he recalls, describing how he learned to be a capitalist at age 6 by buying farm eggs for 12 cents a dozen and selling them for 15 cents.
Ross has made his fortune three times over, experiencing two bankruptcies along the way. He made his first million while still in his 20s, as an auctioneer of fine furs. Then he went into plastics, branching out into profitable sidelines like helping to finance the film, "The Godfather." By some accounts, he is now worth $20 million, although he declines to reveal his precise wealth.
This time around, he intends to eke out his fortune slowly -- so that it lasts until he dies. Having already provided generously for his wife and two children, he has dedicated his life to the motto: "He who gives while he lives . . . also knows where it goes."
Knowing where it goes is a time-consuming, sometimes arduous, occupation. As a greenhorn philanthropist back in 1978, Ross hoped to distribute 16,500 silver dollars to needy children during a torchlight parade through Minneapolis. Discovering that handing the coins out individually would take "a year of Sundays," he tossed them by the bagfull, provoking a near-riot.
Ross now concedes that it was a mistake literally to throw his money away. Casting around for more efficient ways of spending his fortune, he hit on the idea of having would-be beneficiaries of his largess write in to state their cases. A newspaper column would gain recruits and promote his philosophy of sharing.
At first, editors were skeptical. They thought that Ross would tire of the idea, that his money would run out, that it was an exercise in self-promotion.
"I had all kinds of grief," he recalls. "They told me, 'You're over the hill, Ross.' Well, they didn't know what hill I was climbing."
He persevered and gradually won clients for the column. He now claims 20 million readers in newspapers ranging from the New York Daily News and the Philadelphia Inquirer to the Ocala Star-Banner and the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise. Ross's hometown newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, has turned down the column.
"We simply haven't deemed it appropriate," managing editor Tim McGuire said. He refused to elaborate.
"Remember what they say about a prophet being without honor in his own country. Back here in Minneapolis, they just take him for granted," sighs Constance Hanson, Ross' executive assistant for the past 20 years.
"Don't you think, Miss Hanson, that it could be a blessing in disguise?" interrupts Ross. "If the column ran here, there would be so many people lining outside the door, it would be impossible to get into the office."
Sifting through the 8,000 letters Ross receives every week is a major logistical feat as it is. A preliminary selection is made by professional readers who reject nine requests in 10. Hanson or Kittelson then winnow the final 800 down to 200 for the philanthropist's personal consideration.
Asked how he makes the final selection, Ross snaps his fingers. Such decisions, he implies, have become second nature.
"It's a gut feeling," he said, trying to explain. "When I was a kid, I knew what it was to be cold, hungry and have a leaky roof. We had a leaky roof, right over my bedroom. I knew what it was to be poor."
Leaky-roof stories crop up in the column every few weeks in seemingly endless variations. Inevitably, however, there are times when Ross' gut instinct betrays him.
"Boy, did you get taken," began a missive from West Virginia. "You recently sent a friend of mine $200 so he could supposedly fix his grandmother's leaky roof. This guy doesn't even have a grandmother, let alone a leaky roof. I'm here to tell you that he spent the money on new speakers for his stereo and had a good laugh all the way to the bank when he cashed your check."
Ross shrugs. He's been taken before, he said, and he'll undoubtedly be taken again. What's a few hundred dollars to a millionaire, anyway? So much loose change.
Next to leaky roofs, offbeat requests for sums of up to $500 probably stand the best chance. A request that gives Ross a chance to make a snappy, witty answer, preferably with a pun, is also a good bet.
Typical was the plea from an unsuccessful inventor who needed "exactly $180" to get his "backyard tilt-a-whirl to perform at top level."
"I'm not real clear how a carnival ride in your backyard is going to make you a successful inventor," Ross wrote back, "but I am willing to give it a whirl. If you feel $180 is going to put you on the right path, start your journey because my check is on the way."
He has sent $400 for a hearing aid to a deaf alcoholic who wanted to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, $80 to an unemployed disc jockey looking for license plates so he could drive in search of a new job and free subscriptions to girlie magazines to a 92-year-old grandfather. To a hermaphrodite in Chattanooga, Tenn., who was raised as a male but gradually became female, he sent a check for women's clothing.
Rejecting requests can be as much fun as granting them. Like the one that read: "Dear Mr. Ross, I immigrated here from Germany in 1938. I have reason to believe I might be a 5th or 6th cousin to Adolph Hitler. I would like a geneology check which is more than I can afford. Will you help?"
Answer: "No . . . and if I were you I'd keep it quiet."
The way Ross describes it, the column is merely the tip of an unseen charitable iceberg. He said he prefers not to publicize his larger donations. As if to confirm this point, he proceeds to engage in a confidential exchange with his assistant within hearing of a reporter.
"Miss Hanson, what were we going to do about that fire in Alabama?"
"I said five, and you said 10, Mr. Ross. They could be getting help elsewhere."
"If they're not getting help, let's go for the full 10."
Miss Hanson nodds her assent and, zap, another good deed is done for the day. The eavesdropper is left to infer that the discussion is being conducted in thousand-dollar units.
Ross's obvious talent for self-promotion has earned him a fair number of critics, particularly in Minneapolis, where he is known for his bankruptcies as much as his philanthropy. He has been accused of tax evasion, of giving only when the cameras are rolling, of being an incurable showoff.
"Percy is not a malicious person, but he is a flamboyant publicity-seeker," said Robert T. Smith, a columnist for the Star-Tribune and one of the most persistent critics. "Take that stunt when he threw the silver dollars out of the car. Not since Mary Antoinette said 'Let them eat cake' has anyone been so insensitive."
Ross is unperturbed by the carping. If he ever again feels unloved, he can take refuge in the warehouse full of thank-you notes that he has accumulated over the years. Filed away neatly and never thrown away, they have become a paper monument to his philanthropy.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get such a following," he said. "I'm enjoying it. People like my philosophy. They flatter me and compliment me. A fellow from Denver once wrote me. 'Mr. Ross,' he said, 'you exemplify capitalism at its best.' I will never forget that."