The Complex Tale of America's 'Blue-Collar Millionaire'

Percy Ross gave away millions of dollars—but was everything as it seemed?
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 21, 2017 4:39 PM CDT
The Complex Tale of Percy Ross, 'America's Rich Uncle'
Percy Ross gave money away like it was water.   (Getty Images/Valeriya)

Percy Ross made his fortune in plastic garbage bags (after some other entrepreneurial endeavors), culminating in the sale of his company, Poly-Tech, for $8 million on July 20, 1969—the same day man walked on the moon. A Longreads story by Jacqui Shine details Ross' "pitch-perfect rags-to-riches tale" as the son of poor immigrants who suddenly found himself with more money than he knew what to do with. And so he started spending his windfall on everything from business investments, real estate, and luxury clothes and cars to "legendary parties" that hosted both stars and "plain folk," including a $25,000 one he threw in 1972 in Minneapolis for local airport skycaps who'd treated him well when he was a nobody. But in the mid-70s, he fixated on a new self-assignment: "to give away money and be known for it," the ad agency director who helped him back then told Backstage in 1981.

And did he give away money. Shine documents a series of high-profile "publicity stunts" Ross pulled off over the next few years, all with the media informed well ahead of time what he'd be doing. Between 1983 and 1999, Ross gave away between $20 million and $30 million, mainly through a newspaper column called "Thanks a Million," in which strangers would write in to ask for money. He soon became known as "America's Rich Uncle," the "Blue-Collar Millionaire," and, thanks to his column, "Ann Landers with a bank account." Not everyone was impressed with Ross' showy philanthropy: One reporter once noted that "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." He died in 2001 at the age of 84. Shine's story here, including on Ross' legal troubles, his finagling of the truth, and how his efforts may have been tied to the Reaganomics of the time. (More Longform stories.)

Stories to sink your teeth into.
Get our roundup of longform stories every Saturday.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.