Young Rick Scott recalled as driven, frugal, studious, focused

NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo.

There is a Ruby Tuesday on Burlington Avenue, a big new community center on Armour, and if you listen closely you can hear Spanish in the high school bleachers on Friday nights in the fall.

Besides that, folks here say, not much has changed over 40 years in this little blue-collar enclave that produced the man who might be Florida's next governor.

Rick Scott was born in Illinois, but home is here, a hamlet of about 5,000 tucked into a crook in the Missouri River north of downtown Kansas City. They call it Northtown, home of the Hornets, a place within a bigger place.

Rick Scott rode the school bus past bungalows that hug narrow streets, with streetlamps, with shade trees, with trimmed lawns small enough to triple jump. He was raised alongside railroad tracks, gypsum plants and flour mills in a community connected by pride and tradition.

The graduates of North Kansas City High still gather at football games and grab fried tacos with powdered cheese at In-A-Tub and meet for beers at Kelso's Northtown.

But ask around about Rick Scott, Class of 1970, and you hear the same things.

"Who?"

"The hospital guy?"

"Never heard of him."

It's not until you meet his few close local friends that you find out why.

Rick Scott didn't stand out here. He was too busy.

• • •

You've probably heard the campaign line: Rick Scott, son of a trucker and a JCPenney clerk, sold TV Guide, slung newspapers, cleaned phone booths, stocked groceries. Joined the Navy after high school, married his sweetheart, bought a doughnut shop and gave his mother a job, went on to law school and soon began accumulating hospitals until, about 10 years later, he owned the largest chain in the country.

His story checks out.

Even the Eagle Scout bit.

"Feb. 29, 1968," says Liz Honeycutt, with the Boy Scout's Heart of America Council.

If we're shaped by our experiences, Rick Scott is North Kansas City.

He learned lessons at Ray's United Super, which served about a 4-mile radius. Scott started working there in high school, and owner Ray Couch, a big man who had made most of his living at a Safeway, assigned each young employee an aisle.

Scott got the bake aisle.

His friend Alan Wiest got baby food.

In downtime, they shot hoops in Scott's back yard or threw the football with about 40 kids in front of Scott's house on N Chelsea Avenue, lined with tidy single-family homes. Both were smaller than other kids, especially the jocks, and the dream of playing sports ended early.

Instead, they worked.

The two stocked shelves and swept floors, 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. or 2 to 10 p.m., and they often came on their own time to make sure their aisles were clean, organized. Scott stocked flour, sugar, cake mixes, Jell-O. They made $1.65 an hour, and stashed most of it away. When they splurged — which wasn't often — it was at Dixon's Chili Parlor or Velvet Creme or the Dairy Queen, where they sat on their cars in the moonlight.

Early on, the two started talking about how cool it would be to own a business.

"He always wanted to own his own business," says Wiest, Scott's best friend back then. "We were both that way."

Wiest is sitting in a nice house in the hills outside Northtown afforded by his own chain of grocery stores. He and Scott have remained friends since elementary school, and they still talk once every few weeks and vacation together.

He's one of a few people contacted who know Rick Scott from his days here.

Scott kept a low profile in a senior class of about 500, almost all white. He wore a necktie and plaid blazer for senior pictures. While others played sports or ran for student council or participated in chess club or Key Club, Scott was working or studying.

"He was a very studious guy," said Jerry Spotts, 57, Class of '71, who played guard on the football team. "He stayed on top of his books."

"He was a pretty sharp individual," said Jerry's brother, John Spotts, Class of '70. "He wasn't somebody who tried to be seen a lot, but if he said something, you listened."

Scott drove a '61 Chevy Impala, Wiest said, and they often went down to the Plaza in Kansas City, or to the Antioch Center, a mall here. Scott's senior year, he met Ann Holland, a pretty girl who moved in from Texas. When the two started dating, some of the girls wondered why she had chosen him. When she showed off her corsage in the girl's restroom at the high school dance, they knew.

After high school, Scott went to community college, Wiest said, and then joined the Navy. When he returned he enrolled at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He and Ann, married then, lived in a basement apartment and went to study groups. Scott bought a failing Flavor Maid Do-Nut shop, Wiest said, and revived it by adding workplace delivery, which his father ran, instead of relying on foot traffic.

"He looked at all the numbers and decided there was a better way to do it," Wiest said.

And he was always frugal. Instead of taking their wives to the movies or dinner, Wiest and Scott took them to picnics in the park, or to Lake Viking, where they could swim for free.

"He was very aware of not spending money on frivolous things," Wiest said. "That was part of his upbringing."

After college, Rick and Ann Scott moved to Dallas, where he worked on his law degree at Southern Methodist University. But he always kept in touch with his friends back home, who watched from a distance as the nerdy kid with a sharp business mind churned his way to success, first with a law firm, then by investing in two hospitals in El Paso. They watched him climb from two hospitals in 1988 to the head of Columbia/HCA, which, by 1997, had hospitals in 38 states, 285,000 employees and annual revenue in excess of $23 billion.

Jerry Spotts went to visit Scott once in Dallas. He was impressed.

"I was like, 'Look at this guy,' " he said. " 'He's probably only known by 5 percent of the people in high school and he's gone on to do all these things.' "

And they watched him fall. Scott was forced out of Columbia/HCA by its board of directors in the nation's biggest health care fraud scandal. He was never indicted, but his former company coughed up $1.7 billion in fines.

"The press has been hard on him," said Wiest. "That troubles me because you're not going to meet a more honest guy."

• • •

Now that he's Florida's Republican nominee for governor, Scott's close friends aren't surprised. They know the man who can't sit still and doesn't watch much TV, who works out at 5 a.m., who hates losing card games. They know the mid 80s golfer who persuaded Wiest's wife to take up the game and taught Wiest's 7-year-old son to snow ski at Deer Valley, Colo.

"If he sets his mind to it," said Jerry Spotts, "he could do anything, because he's so focused."

"He wants other people to succeed," Wiest said.

"I've never seen him fail," Jerry Spotts said. "All the way back to high school."

Before he announced he was running for governor, Scott called Wiest. He told his old friend that he didn't like where the country was headed, and that President Barack Obama's health care bill was bad for everyone. Wiest agreed, and told him to go for it.

If he doesn't win, his high school buddies know it won't be for not trying, and they know that when he comes back to Northtown, the self-made multimillionaire will call them up and ask them to meet him for a meal where he often goes. Perkins Family Restaurant.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (813) 310-6066.

Young Rick Scott recalled as driven, frugal, studious, focused 10/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 22, 2010 8:30pm]

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