H. Ross Perot Sr., the self-made Dallas billionaire-businessman, patriot and philanthropist who died Tuesday at age 89, was among the most consequential Texans of the last century. Besides running twice, in 1992 and 1996, as an independent and then a third-party presidential candidate, he founded two successful computer-services firm and gave away millions of dollars to causes including healthcare, education, and military veterans.
With a fortune estimated this year at $4.1 billion by Forbes magazine, Ross, together with his wife, Margot Perot, generated gifts to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, for example, and to build Dallas’ Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Hall. It’s estimated that the Perot Foundation, which Ross started in 1969, has given more than $93 million to UT Southwestern alone, including $25 million for the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute there.
Other groups supported by the family foundation or by Ross directly include the Circle Ten Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Tejas Girl Scout Council, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Parkland Burn Unit, the U.S. Naval Academy and numerous military memorials and museums, the Dallas Museum of Art, the Dallas Opera, the Dallas Arboretum, the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Planned Parenthood, the Salvation Army, the North Texas Food Bank, United Way, St. Philip’s School, the Bridge Homeless Recovery Shelter, Family Gateway, and the Family Place.
The Perots’ five children — H. Ross Perot Jr., Nancy Perot, Suzanne McGee, Carolyn Rathjen and Katherine Reeves — have carried on in the same vein. The Perot children made the lead gift for the Margot Perot Women’s and Children’s Hospital at Presbyterian Hospital, for instance, and contributed $50 million to Dallas’ Perot Museum of Natural Science to honor their parents.
Born Henry Ray Perot in Texarkana to a family of modest means — he would later change the “Ray” to “Ross” to honor his father, Gabriel Ross Perot — Perot began working at odd jobs at age 6, from selling garden seeds to delivering newspapers. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Navy before joining International Business Machines as a salesman.
He grew frustrated with IBM, though, after its leadership rejected his proposal to start a company selling computer services. So, with $1,000 borrowed from Margot — the two married in 1956 — Ross founded Electronic Data Systems, or EDS, in 1962. The company took off, successfully pursuing major contracts with the U.S. government, and went public in 1968.
Sixteen years later General Motors snapped up EDS for $2.5 billion, making Ross a billionaire. In 1988 he and Ross Jr. and eight associates founded computer-services firm Perot Systems, which was sold to Dell in 2009 for $3.9 billion. It was the strength of these enterprises that allowed Ross and his family to “give back” to their communities so generously.
KRLD-AM business analyst David Johnson says that, above all, Ross was “the world’s consummate salesman. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.” In one of his many interviews with Johnson, Ross told how, as a teenager, he’d written letters “like every week” to Texas Sen. W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel requesting admission to the U.S. Naval Academy. Finally, after all of Ross’s letters had gone unanswered, O’Daniel was told by an aide one day that he had one more appointment to make to the academy. “Send it to that kid from Texarkana,” the senator thundered. “And tell him not to write me any more letters!”
On Twitter, another legendary Dallas businessman and philanthropist, Boone Pickens, said: “Ross Perot was an incredible individual, patriot, entrepreneur and visionary business leader. He was underestimated much of his life and leaves behind a larger than life legacy. He epitomized all that is great about America. Humble beginnings and a great work ethic are stepping stones to incredible success.”
Diagnosed with leukemia in February, Ross battled the disease in typical Perot style. Only three weeks ago, he was seen on a Sunday brunching with family at the Dallas Country Club and appearing to be in fine shape. But just days after his 89th birthday on June 27, the disease overwhelmed him.
A public memorial service is being planned for Ross. Meantime, the family has established a memorial website with information about him. One section, called “Continue the Cause,” invites people to learn more about and to support various charities that were important to Ross, including the Perot Museum, the Circle Ten Council of the Boy Scouts, UT Southwestern, the Visiting Nurse Association of Texas, the North Texas Food Bank, the Salvation Army DFW, and Teach for America.