Ross Perot was described as “colorful,” “a pain,” and “a gadfly” in his obituaries. But one adjective was used the most: “eccentric.” When you’re poor and do what you wish, you are a “troublemaker.” When you are rich and do what you wish, you are “eccentric.” Perot follows a long line of eccentric Texans – some right on the edge of weird. We had a governor and a mule – strange story. And why an early Texan wanted to be buried standing up. Then there was Houston’s own Howard Hughes, who supposedly was such a germophobe that he wore Kleenex boxes on his feet. But let’s start with Perot, who wasn’t born Ross Perot and even changed the way people pronounced his last name. According to his obit, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Bob McFadden, which was on the front page of The New York Times and filled two full pages inside, Perot was born Henry Ray Perot, but changed his name to Henry Ross Perot in honor of a brother, Gabriel Ross Perot Jr., who died, a toddler, in 1927. The family pronounced the surname PEE-roe, but in his 20s Ross changed that, too, making it puh-ROE, because, he said, he got tired of correcting people. He called himself Ross; years later, the news media added the initial “H” at the beginning of his name, but he never liked it.
As a boy growing up poor in Texarkana, Perot broke his father’s horses, and Ross’s nose. He had never been in a boat or even seen an ocean when was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. (He kept his Navy haircut the rest of this life.) Despite academic mediocrity, he was elected class president and graduated in 1953. After graduation, Perot was to serve four years in the Navy. After serving only 15 months he tried desperately to get out. He clashed with his superior officers, one of whom wrote: Perot was “emotionally maladjusted for a regular Navy career.” Nevertheless in later years he was honored by both the Navy and the Marine Corps for endowing foundations and helping veterans.
After the Navy, Perot joined IBM in 1955. In his last year at IBM, he filled his sales quota for the year in the first three weeks in January. He quit and founded Electronic Data Systems. In 1984 he sold it to General Motors for $2.5 billion in cash and stock that made him G.M.’s largest shareholder. He joined G.M.’s board and quickly made himself unbearable. “Revitalizing G.M. is like teaching an elephant to tap dance,” Perot said. He also said: “It takes five years to design a new car in this country. Heck, we won World War II in four years.” One can only wonder how the G.M. board of directors meetings went. In 1986, the board paid him just to go away. Perot accepted a $700 million G.M. buyout. Two years later, he founded Perot Systems. In 2009, Dell acquired Perot Systems for $3.9 billion.
Some quotes: “(In Moscow) we got through to Brezhnev and Kosygin on the telephone. I think it was because no one and ever tried to call them at home.”
“I came from an environment where if you see a snake, you kill it. At General Motors, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is to hire a consultant on snakes.”
“So many people spend their lives chasing money and end up as the richest men in the cemetery. I don’t want to be like that.”
The “giant sucking sound” was what Perot called what he believed were the negative effects of NAFTA. In hindsight, a lot of people disagreed, but the phrase stuck.
He ran for president as an independent candidate in 1992 and a made a third-party campaign in 1996. In the ’92 campaign, at the peak of his popularity, he suddenly dropped out of the race. Months later, he jumped back in, explaining his political rivals had engaged in “dirty tricks” to disrupt his daughter Carolyn’s wedding: “I had three reports that the Republican Party intended to publish a fake photograph of my daughter,” putting her head on another body. According to one report, he frequently hired private investigators to check on the backgrounds of employees and adversaries. He routinely monitored the movements and friendships of his family members. He worried about attacks from his enemies among them Vietnamese, Iranians, Black Panthers, drug traffickers, and their allies in the U.S. government. His Dallas mansion was surrounded by walls, cameras, movement sensors, alarms, and security guards; on occasion, armed with an automatic rifle, he roamed the grounds. During the third debate of the 1992 presidential campaign, he announced that “the Vietnamese had sent people into Canada to make arrangement [sic] to have me and my family killed. The most significant effort they had one night is five people coming across my front yard.”
I mentioned that Perot was not the only Texan to have odd quirks, like the before cited Gov. George T. Wood (1847-1849) who rode a mule around the state. At night he took a rope and tied one end to his ankle and the other end to the mule. Wood refused to wear socks. Early Texan Brit Bailey wanted to be buried standing up, facing the West “with my rifle at my side and a jug of whiskey at my feet.” Then there was Texan Howard Hughes and his Kleenex boxes. In his later years, Hughes holed up in a Las Vegas hotel/casino. While he was staying at one, to avoid being evicted, he bought the place. Hughes ate the same dinner all the time: a triple glass of tomato juice, a salad, a thin butterfly steak and coffee. In 1976, Hughes died on a flight from Acapulco to Houston to seek medical treatment. A Houston minister began his sermon with: “Last week the richest man in the world died – and nobody cared.”
Ashby is eccentric at email@example.com