It is a Dickensian-like story, as if H. Ross Perot’s childhood had flowed out of Charles Dickens’ pen. Yet, he probably had it better than many of his friends and neighbors during the Great Depression.
The youngster’s father was a cotton trader, who took great care to offer a fair price to the poor farmers he worked with. His mom shared what little they had with the homeless that wandered past their home. There was even a physical mark left by earlier drifters near their residence to let other hobos know that there was a free meal waiting for them if they needed one. In other words, she was a “mark.”
When one of the hobos pointed out where this signal was, young Ross asked his mother if she wanted him to remove it. She said, “No, son, these are people just like us. The only difference is they are down on their luck.”
By the time he was a teenager, it was the Perots that found themselves down on their luck. His father needed kidney surgery, which was extremely risky at the time and cost the family everything they had managed to put together.
To make matters worse, there was no doctor in Texarkana, where the family lived, that was willing to perform the operation. The family would have to journey to Shreveport, La., seventy-four miles away. The problem for young Ross is he had a paper route and he could not find another carrier to deliver his newspapers for him. Every carrier he asked thought the neighborhoods he went delivering the news, often before the sun had risen, were extremely dangerous.
It was the reason that H. Ross was making five times as much as any other paperboy in the area. He had created the route out of the desperation. He needed a job. Things were so financially tight in the area that other boys were searching for ways to help their families. All of the established routes for the local Texarkana Gazette were full. A costumer could get a week’s worth of newspapers for a quarter. The carrier would get 7.5 cents and the newspaper kept 17.5 cents.
There were two neighborhoods that were not served, New Town and Avondale, the poorest black and the white sections in the area. The thought of a child going into these areas in the early dawn was terrifying. Not only did everyone consider these neighborhoods extremely dangerous, but, given the poverty there, everyone assumed that very few of the residences in these slums could read and, of those that could read, very few could afford the money it would cost for newspaper.
Plus, the streets were not paved. No bicycle, loaded down with newspapers, could maneuver through the sand. A young boy would need a horse at his disposal. Given that his father spent a great deal of time at auctions, young Ross just happened to have an old mare named Bee.
Figuring he would quickly quit, and warning Ross of the risks, the circulation manager offered the young boy those neighborhoods, but he would have to find the customers. If he somehow managed to gather some subscribers, the newspaper would reverse the percentages. The teenager would take home 17.5 cents a week for each customer and the newspaper would pocket 7.5 cents.
The next day, 14-year-old H. Ross began knocking on doors, expecting to have them slammed in his face. A few pennies were better than none. Instead, something strange happened. Almost every door he went up to in these extremely poor neighborhoods, the people greeted him warmly. They were overjoyed at the chance to get the newspaper.
At best, some of these families were making $9 a week. Yet, they somehow were willing to come up with a quarter a week to get the paper. There were several practical reasons they might have wanted the newspaper. Old newsprint could be used as insulation in the walls, as wallpaper, or even slipped between the sheets in a bed to keep a person warm at night.
There was also a pride in being knowledgeable, of knowing what was going on. Getting the newspaper made them part of the community. Even if a person could not read, one of their children or someone else would read the news to them. People in these neighborhoods saw the newspaper as an instrument to help them climb out of poverty. They might not escape, but their kids had a chance.
So, at 4 a.m. every morning, H. Ross Perot saddled his horse, rode 2.5 miles to the gas station where the newspapers were dropped off and went about his route, hopefully getting home by 7 a.m. Young Ross never had any concerns for his safety. What the boy found out was that these people the wealthier residences feared were good people, just poor. Unlike some of the customers in the middle and upper class sections of town, H. Ross never had to chase down his customers for payment. Every Saturday when he went around to collect, everyone made sure he got paid. Even if a family was not home, there was always a quarter waiting in the mailbox for him.
Eventually, his route became so successful that the circulation manager tried to renege on their verbal agreement. He wanted Ross to accept the percentage that the other paperboys were getting. Feeling that he was being wronged, the teenager went to the publisher, Mr. Palmer, who, through a twist of fate, the teenager had met a few days earlier when the wealthy gentleman had accidentally locked himself in his office and Ross had opened the door for him. The elderly man, remembering him, agreed that his newspaper would honor their commitment with the teenager.
Now, with his father sick and having to be away for several days,Ross was sick that he could not find anyone to replace him on the deliveries. Feeling like all his efforts were crumbling to dust, that he was letting the residents down, the boy made the long trek through those neighborhoods that Saturday, explaining the situation to his customers and asked them if they would consider continuing to receive the paper when he got back. He completely understood if they wanted to cancel receiving the newspaper in the future.
Instead, each and every one of them said the same thing to him. They told him not to worry. They asked him to save up all the newspapers that came out while he was gone and simply deliver them when he got back. The youngster was stunned. Why in the world would anyone want a bundle of old newspapers? They all said the same thing, “Son, if your dad has a serious medical problem, you need the money. So, save the papers for us and we will pay you when you get back.”
This was a lesson that H. Ross Perot took with him for the rest of his life. He often reflected on the amazing luck he had — claiming he could tell such stories until “the world goes flat” — luck many of his customers on that childhood paper route never had. Yet, Ross always remembered the goodness among these people who did not have two nickels to rub together. It is the goodness of the American people. It seems like we attack each other so viciously today. But that goodness is still there.
I was disappointed in the media coverage of H. Ross Perot’s death. If he had not quit in 1992, before reentering the race again, he had a chance to be the first third party candidate to enter the Oval Office in the modern area. I don’t know if he would have been a good president or not. I do know that he saw the goodness in the American people. We need a little more of that.
Trevor Soderstrum is a Story City native who has been writing columns for about 10 years or so. He’s been all over the world, and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He loves to share his stories.