The more you give, the more you receive

The more you give, the more you receive by David Lias I first learned of Percy Ross when I began working for the Redfield Press about 10 years ago.

The son of an immigrant junk dealer, Ross grew up to be an entrepreneur who, after a couple of business failures, sold one of his successful ventures for $8 million.

After dividing that money up four ways � a share for him, one for his wife, and one each for his two sons � Ross invested his. And his share grew into a vast fortune that he decided he would give away to people who really, truly needed it.

"He must be nuts," you think. "No one in their right mind would do that."

Ross is in his 80s now, and he's given away that entire fortune. He started in 1977 by giving $50,000 to help 50 Vietnamese refugees make a new home in America. Then he threw a huge party for 1,050 poor children of Minneapolis, MN. He gave each a bicycle � something he wanted as a child but his family could not afford. After the thrill of that Christmas party, he started a newspaper column called "Thanks a Million."

It's the column I would faithfully read each week as I helped put out the weekly edition of the Redfield paper. Readers would write in and ask for money. If they asked the right way, Ross would send it.

Ross doesn't reveal how much he actually gave away over the years, but many estimate it to be in the $30-million range.

"I never tell anybody," he said in a recent interview. "It's not a question of how much one gives. Am I a better person if I gave away $2 million than if I gave $1 million?"

And that's not all. "If I had twice as much," he said, "I still would have given it all away. For every person I helped, there were 400 to 500 I couldn't help."

Percy Ross is the kind of person a lot of us would like to be. And what I've always found encouraging about living in South Dakota is the strong trait of giving to help those who are less fortunate � by people whose pockets aren't close to bulging with a lot of dollars.

It's what Connecticut College president Claire Gaudiani calls "the wisdom tradition." By that, she means that human beings have long recognized the value and importance of generosity � even generosity toward those who are from different backgrounds than we are.

"I suspect that we, as a species, are hardwired to be generous � that this is a survival mechanism of our species," she said.

Gaudiani is writing a book on the topic. In her research, she has found countless stories from over the ages that reveal the role compassion and charity play in the human tradition. What she has learned is that compassion and charity bind us together; they create a family out of strangers, a bond that sustains the race.

One of the most famous is the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan comes across a man who has been robbed and beaten, and even though the man's religion and ethnicity are different than his � major barriers, even today � the Good Samaritan reaches out to help that man because he recognizes what they have in common is their humanity.

As I write this, there is a story and photos on my desk about sixth-graders from Vermillion Middle School. The class decided to take $500 from the money they earned in an annual fund-raiser that's usually used to pay for extra supplies and field trips and the like. They gave it middle school teacher Brett Johnson, who, in turn, delivered it personally to the Salvation Army in New York City to help with recovery efforts following the attacks of Sept. 11.

But we don't have to think of philanthropy as merely the act of giving away money. The word comes from philos and anthropos, the Greek words for "love" and "man." The broader meaning of philanthropy, then, is love for our fellow human beings. In many cultures this broader idea is communicated as a call for individuals to take responsibility for the welfare of their community.

Think for a moment about what wouldn't happen in this community and throughout the state if it wasn't for simple, pure generosity.

Families with loved ones battling serious illnesses would have to struggle a bit harder to deal with medical and travel expenses if South Dakotans weren't so prone to drop everything and hold community bake sales and auctions and raffles.

The collective generosity of local service clubs makes sure that second-graders receive free bike helmets each year. They make sure that people with sight problems receive treatment and are fitted with free eyeglasses. They do everything from winterize and clean up houses to deliver meals to shut-ins.

The generosity of University of South Dakota alumni is responsible for the many improvements that have taken place and are driving projects that are in the works for the campus, from the renovation of Old Main, the purchase of new turf in the DakotaDome and funding for a childcare center to future improvements to the mass communications building.

As we resolve to set goals for the new year, we need to remember that everyone has something to give. Even if you never have a million dollars to give away, there are a million ways you can help other people. It takes a hard goal, a commitment, and a little of the Percy Ross spirit. If his story is any example, it's a great way to live a life with no regrets.

When he finished giving away all of his money, Ross wrote a little thank you to his supporters: "I'll continue to seek financial opportunities in our capitalistic society. In other words, I need to get a job. And, if by chance I can make another pile of money, I'll be back giving it away."

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