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Percy Ross, philanthropic columnist

Percy Ross, the millionaire-turned-philanthropist who doled out cash to readers of his syndicated column for more than 16 years, has died at age 84.

Mr. Ross, who died Saturday at his home, was best known for his newspaper column "Thanks a Million," through which he gave out millions of dollars worldwide.

Mr. Ross closed his wallet when he ended the column in September 1999. He estimated he had handed out as much as $30-million.

"I've achieved my goal. I've given it all away," Mr. Ross told readers in his farewell column. "You've given me so much over the years. In many respects, I'm far richer today than when I started."

The column ran in about 800 newspapers, from major dailies to tiny weeklies. Through it and other philanthropy, Mr. Ross helped pay for organ transplants and recreational centers and handed out silver dollars along with his homespun wisdom.

"He who gives while he lives," he often wrote, "also knows where it goes."

Mr. Ross' editor, Nancy Webber, said he would get 10,000 letters from readers weekly seeking help, offering suggestions or simply saying thank you. Even after the column ended, Mr. Ross continued to get up to 2,000 letters a month.

"The post office would call us every two weeks and say, "You've got a full bag of mail over here,' " assistant Kurt Jess said Tuesday.

And Mr. Ross occasionally responded to requests, even though the money for philanthropy had run out.

High school freshman James Haught, of Del Norte, Colo., wrote to Mr. Ross last December, saying he needed $65 for a school science project. Mr. Ross sent $100.

In 1998, Mr. Ross helped Marquette, Mich., raise $3.5-million to build a YMCA, appealing to his readers to send $1 each.

"We received over $50,000 in $1 bills," YMCA board member Mary Tavernini recalled. "It was just incredible."

The son of poor immigrants from Latvia and Russia, Mr. Ross made his fortune producing plastic film and trash bags.

After selling his company for $8-million in 1969, he split the money four ways among his wife and two sons.

Mr. Ross used the $2-million he kept for himself, and with subsequent investments established himself as a philanthropist. He launched the column in March 1983.

In a 1999 interview, Mr. Ross said he came up with the column idea after giving away more than 1,000 bicycles at a holiday party for children in Minneapolis in the late 1970s.

"I fully expected that my health would go long before my wealth," he wrote in his final column. "In my wildest dreams I never expected to have survived nearly 17 years in print."

_ Area obituaries and the Suncoast Deaths list appear in local sections.