Texas billionaire Ross Perot dies at age 89

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Texas businessman, philanthropist and former politician Ross Perot has died.

The self-made billionaire who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty and twice ran for president died of leukemia early Tuesday at his Dallas home surrounded by his family, family spokesman James Fuller said. He was 89.

The Perot family released a statement saying he was surrounded by loved ones at his passing.

“In business and in life, Ross was a man of integrity and action. A true American patriot and a man of rare vision, principle and deep compassion, he touched the lives of countless people through his unwavering support of the military and veterans and through his charitable endeavors,” the family said. “Ross Perot will be deeply missed by all who loved him. He lived a long and honorable life.”

Ross Perot wanted to run the country much like he ran his billion-dollar business. His two runs for the White House may not have been successful, but he struck a chord with voters and shook up America’s political landscape in the process.

In 1992 and 1996, Perot mobilized over five million voters to get him on the ballot and was the most successful third-party presidential candidate in United States history.

But the wealthy businessman had humble roots. He was born as Henry Ross Perot on June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas. And what his family lacked in money, they made up for with values.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter what happens to you. What matters is did you do the right thing,�� he once said.

Perot was a proud Eagle Scout who studied at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was class president and a battalion commander.

After graduation, he served four years in the Navy where he fell in love with a young teacher named Margot Birmingham, who would become his wife. They went on to have five children.

Perot’s first civilian job was a salesman for IBM. But he had bigger dreams. In 1962, with a $1,000 loan from his wife, he started the computer processing company Electronic Data Systems.

READ MORE: Ross Perot’s business legacy reshaped North Texas

Many of the early hires at EDS were former military men, and they had to abide by Perot’s strict dress code — white shirts, ties, no beards or mustaches — and long workdays. Many wore crewcuts like Perot.

The company’s big break came in the mid-1960s when the federal government created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for seniors, the disabled and the poor. States needed help in running the programs, and EDS won contracts — starting in Texas — to handle the millions of claims.

EDS first sold stock to the public in 1968, and overnight, Perot was worth $350 million. His fortune doubled and tripled as the stock price rose steadily. In 1984, he sold control of the company to General Motors Corp. for $2.5 billion and received $700 million in a buyout. In 2008, EDS was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co.

In 1969, the Defense Department recognized Perot for his work getting aide to POWs in Vietnam. Ten years later, he bribed an Iranian revolutionary group to storm a prison there so two of his employees could escape.

He paid the group an undisclosed amount of cash and said the U.S. government had no knowledge of his plan.

The world truly took notice of Perot in 1992 after he announced the possibility of running for president against President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. A huge grassroots effort was mobilized.

“Certainly if anyone in this country should be obligated to serve our country and its people, I should be,” he said.

SMU Presidential Historian Jeff Engel is writing a book about the 1992 presidential election.

“He was the first person to really run for president as a business person. Saying that only a business person and only a guy who understands the real world can cut through the red tape of Washington bureaucracy,” Engel said. “He was a modern-day populist, and he also was the person who really set the trends that we see today.”

Perot became the head of a newly formed Reform Party, promising to cut waste and eliminate deficits that he blamed on previous administrations.

“Maybe it was voodoo economics. Whatever it was, we are now in deep voodoo, I’ll tell you that. Ha, ha, ha,” he said.

During the campaign, Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money and bought up 30-minute television spots. He used charts and graphs to make his points, summarizing them with a line that became a national catchphrase: “It’s just that simple.” 

But his unconventional behavior and style hurt the campaign. Perot and his running mate, retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale, backed out of the race in July but still won 19% of the vote. That was more than any other third-party candidate ever.

His second run in 1996 was not as successful, though it cemented his legacy as a colorful and unique political figure.

Engel says Perot’s message of manufacturing at home, trade barriers, using media and buying TV time to avid media filers speaks directly to voters cast the die for today.

“I don’t think you get Donald Trump in the White House without Ross Perot,” Engel said. “I don’t think you get the message of economic nationalism as popular. Certainly, you don’t get as many people thinking that a business person is the answer to all their government problems.”

Clinton and former President George W. Bush praised Perot’s patriotism and support for veterans. Clinton said Perot wanted to tackle budget deficits and rising national debt that kept interest rates too high for middle-class Americans. Bush said he “epitomized the entrepreneurial spirit” and “gave selflessly of his time and resources to help others in our community.”

In Texas, Perot led commissions on education reform and crime. He was given many honorary degrees and awards for business success and patriotism.

READ MORE: ‘No pass, no play’ rule part of Ross Perot’s legacy in Texas

While he worked at Perot Systems in suburban Dallas, entire hallways were filled with memorabilia from soldiers and POWs that Perot had helped. His personal office was dominated by large paintings of his wife and five children and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington. 

His family donated $50 million to help build the popular Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. He also helped finance the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center and was a major benefactor of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He also provided help to families dealing with medical expenses or other challenges, according to those who knew him.

“Mr. Perot was an engineer at heart.  He saw in this Museum a way to make STEM education accessible and appealing to children at the critical period when capturing their imagination and confidence establishes their trajectory into science and technology,” a spokesperson for the museum said. “He wanted for this city and state an educated, innovative workforce and saw the Perot Museum of Nature and Science as one expression of that. For that, we remain grateful.”

“We have lost a true Dallas icon. Ross Perot was a veteran, successful businessman, and philanthropist who spent his life working hard to make our city, state, and country better,” expressed Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. “He personified the American dream and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.” 

“Ross was a great philanthropist in every meaning of the word. He wanted to help other people,” said Dr. Kern Wildenthal, a longtime friend. “UT Southwestern where I worked with him a number of decades, he wanted that school to be the best of its kind. ‘World class’ was always a word he used.”

Perot is survived by his wife and his five children, as well as numerous grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Instead of flowers, his family asked that people make a contribution to one of his favorite Texas charities: The Circle Ten Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the Salvation Army DFW, the North Texas Food Bank, the Visiting Nurse Association of Texas and Teach for America.

“An act of kindness to a friend, neighbor or stranger in your community will further honor his memory and celebrate,” the Perot family said.

People are also encouraged to read more stories of his life and are welcome to leave their own memories of him at www.rossperot.com/memorials. Information about his memorial and services will also be posted there.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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