November 08, 1999 12:00 PM

A photograph of a cow called Govinda graces a bulletin pill board in Percy Ross’s suburban Minneapolis office. The bovine’s owners, the Hargreaves family of Cottage Grove, Ore., had asked Ross for $100 to buy a harness that would let Govinda help with the farming chores. The check was in the mail. When the grateful Hargreaveses sent Ross the snapshot last March, they noted that “Govinda is very cooperative. She loves all the attention she gets.”

Which pretty much sums up Ross as well. An unabashed Daddy War-bucks, the beneficent 82-year-old has used his “Thanks a Million” column, carried once a week in 800 newspapers over a period of 17 years, to give away his considerable fortune. In late September, Ross called it a day, saying he had accomplished what he’d set out to do: distribute up to $30 million to tens of thousands of strangers. “If people prefer to give money in some quieter, more behind-the-scenes way, that’s their choice,” says Ross. “I always say, ‘He who gives while he lives also knows where it goes!’ ”

Ross’s staff of 10 helped him sift through the 40,000 requests he received monthly. He sent checks—almost always in amounts less than $1,000—to about 150 people a week and chose three of them to feature in his column. “You forget a lot of the names over the years and some of the specifics,” says Ross. “But some people stay in your mind and in your heart.”

One of those was Robert Montgomery, a recently disabled Ohio man, who had lost his job and needed cab fare to visit his 84-year-old mother in a nursing home. Ross sent him $225, enough for a month’s worth of taxi rides and a weekly bouquet of flowers. “I was amazed that he responded,” says Montgomery, 49. “It boosted my and my mom’s morale.” And Ross’s. He wrote that the son’s devotion “restores my faith in human decency.”

The philanthropist’s values clearly dictated who got what. In fact, the logic he applied to parting with his money was sometimes loopy but always lively. There were, of course, groceries to poor families and a wig for a little girl who had lost her hair to chemotherapy. But he also bought a Jeep for an AIDS patient who longed to feel the wind on his face, and dance lessons for an 87-year-old woman trying to impress her 92-year-old twinkle-toes beau.

On rare occasions, Ross asked readers to send money for especially needy cases or to causes he deemed worthy. Last year he not only gave $5,000 to advertising executive Mary Tavernini to help build the YMCA of Marquette County in Michigan’s desolate upper peninsula, he also championed the project in print; readers responded with $75,000, mostly in $1 bills. The YMCA opened last month, and Tavernini boasts that she’s Ross’s No. 1 fan. “He’s sharp and witty,” she says, “and he pulls no punches.”

Though folksy in his column, Ross is nobody’s fool. He routinely rebuked cadgers and ingrates. One woman wanted $500 for a divorce from one husband and another $500 in case her second marriage didn’t work out. “You are not taking marriage seriously enough,” Ross retorted. “Sorry, no money!”

The son of poor Jewish immigrants from Latvia and Russia, Ross grew up counting pennies in Laurium, Mich. The oldest of three sons, he began working with his struggling junk-dealer father at age 6 to help keep coal in the family furnace through punishing winters. “The Salvation Army would come over with warm food,” he recalls. “You feel embarrassed, but you appreciate the help.”

At 17, in the midst of the Depression, Ross was collared for buying stolen brass. “Percy,” he still recalls the sheriff saying, “I have a warrant for your arrest.” The teenager turned and faced the sheriff and the victim of his theft, the owner of a Duluth metals company. “I’m guilty,” he said. “I’m at your mercy.” His candor charmed the businessman, who dropped the charges. Ross graduated from Calumet High in 1934 and later went to work for that same businessman.

Between ages 28 and 42, Ross made and lost two fortunes—one in fur, the other in used construction equipment. “When we were broke, my brother and I never knew it,” says Ross’s son, Larry, now 52. “If we wanted to go to the store, we took money from my dad’s wallet. That’s how he wanted it. With that trust, we never took more than we needed.” Does he mind that Dad later gave a fortune away? “My brother and I are quite financially secure,” says Larry. “It’s not an issue.”

In his third major venture, Ross also went bust with a plastic bag manufacturing company. But this time he turned the business around. With the help of his wife, Laurian, who sold her jewelry and furs for capital, and his sons Steven, now 57, and Larry, who pitched in, Ross became a millionaire. In 1969 he sold the firm for $8 million, dividing the money equally among himself and his family. After some shrewd investments, including buying a box manufacturing company and stock in General Motors, he figured he’d made enough money to start handing it out.

One way or another. Riding in a Lincoln convertible at a 1978 Minneapolis parade, Ross flung $16,500 worth of silver dollars to children lined up along the route. In 1977 he threw a Christmas party for some 1,000 impoverished kids in Minneapolis, stuffing them with kosher hot dogs and surprising each with something Ross never had as a boy—a bicycle. “There’s nothing in the world as great a feeling as giving a child a brand new bicycle,” he says. “It’s something they will remember forever.” The following morning, Ross got a call from Minnesota senator Hubert Humphrey, who had been touched by his generosity. “Thanks a million, dear buddy,” Humphrey said. Ross had a name for his column.

In an earlier, more acquisitive period, Ross had five luxury cars in his garage and a color television installed in his shower. But that was a long time ago. Now, it’s golf with buddies on a public course and quiet dinners with Laurian, his wife of 60 years, in their penthouse apartment. The couple live comfortably on investments Laurian made from her $2 million share of the plastic bag firm the family sold. They recently returned from a three-week Mediterranean cruise, their first holiday since 1982. But sloth doesn’t sit well with Ross. So he goes to his office, reads his mail and grins at the hardworking Govinda in her harness. “Maybe I can figure out how to make more money,” he says, “and start giving it away again.”

Christina Cheakalos

Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis

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