Ross Perot, self-made billionaire, patriot and philanthropist, dies at 89

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Cheryl Hall writes:

Ross Perot, self-made billionaire, renowned patriot and two-time independent candidate for U.S. president, has died after a five-month battle with leukemia.

He was 89.

The pioneer of the computer services industry, who founded Electronic Data Systems Corp. in 1962 and Perot Systems Corp. 26 years later, was just 5-foot-6, but his presence filled a room.

"Describe my father?" Ross Perot Jr., his only son and CEO of the Perot Group, asked rhetorically in an interview. "Obviously a great family man, wonderful father. But at the end of the day, he was a wonderful humanitarian.

"Every day he came to work trying to figure out how he could help somebody."

Perot was diagnosed with leukemia in February. A massive secondary infection the next month nearly killed him, according to the family.

In true Perot fashion, he fought back, showing up at the office most days in his dark suit with the omnipresent American flag on his lapel.

Perot entertained a steady stream of well-wishers at Perot headquarters on Turtle Creek Boulevard and spent Easter with his family at their compound in Bermuda.

He celebrated his 89th birthday in June with a family lunch at his office and a dinner at the home of his daughter, Carolyn Perot Rathjen.

One of his recent visitors was Morton H. Meyerson, the former EDS and Perot Systems president and CEO. Perot named Dallas' symphony hall after Meyerson when Perot donated $10 million toward its construction in 1984.

"Ross was the unusual combination of his father, who was a powerful, big, burly cotton trader — a hard-ass, practical, cut-deals person — and a mother who was a little-bitty woman who was sweet, warm, wonderful," Meyerson said. "Ross was tough, smart, practical, loved to negotiate. But he had a warm and kind heart, too."

In recent years, Perot Sr.'s memory was dimming, but he and Margot, his wife of more than 60 years, maintained a steady social calendar.

Nancy Perot said there was a private, tender side to her father that was often eclipsed by his bolder-than-life public persona. 

No matter how busy Perot was, family dinners were sacrosanct when the children were growing up. The only time he wasn't at the head of the table to say grace was when he was out of town.

"I want people to know about Dad's twinkle in his eyes," she said. "He always gave us the biggest hugs. We never doubted that we were the most important things in his life."

Strong roots

Family influence and an East Texas upbringing molded Perot.

The third child of Lulu May Ray and Gabriel Ross Perot was born in Texarkana in 1930.

He was named Henry Ray, after his maternal grandfather. But Perot changed his middle name in his early teens to honor his beloved father. His older brother, Gabriel Ross Jr., died as a toddler.

When Perot was 25, he dug his father's grave with a shovel and filled it as a final tribute to him.

Perot started throwing the Texarkana Gazette as an 8-year-old. He later credited his newspaper experience with shaping his entrepreneurial ways.

Perot attended Texarkana College before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949.

He met Margot on a blind date when he was a midshipman and she was at Goucher College in Baltimore.

In his autobiography, Ross Perot: My Life & the Principles for Success, Perot reflected on getting several pairs of shoes and a dozen sets of underwear after being sworn into the academy on his 19th birthday. 

He had never had more than one pair of shoes and three or four sets of underwear at a time in his life.

"This was possibly my first example of government waste," he wrote.

Bill Gates of the '60s

As of July, Forbesestimated Perot's wealth at $4.1 billion, making him the 478th-richest person in world. That didn't include the riches he bestowed on his family and community.

Forbes ranked Perot's self-made quotient as a full-fledged 10. That's because he started his empire on his 32nd birthday as a one-man operation financed with $1,000 borrowed from Margot.

Perot came up with the name Electronic Data Systems while attending Sunday service at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, where he and Margot have been members since moving to Dallas in 1957. He scribbled it down on the back of a pledge envelope.

Perot became a multimillionaire when he took EDS public in 1968.

In a 2018 interview, Perot Jr. described the family's dinner the night before the company's IPO. "Dad said, 'Now tomorrow, we're going to take EDS public, and a lot of people are going to write about the money that we have. But remember, none of this is important. The only thing that's important is our family and how we take care and respect our family.'

"That's the first time we ever had a money conversation in the family.

"Then we watched Dad become the Bill Gates of the '60s. As I tell the children, Fortune said he was 'the fastest, richest Texan ever.' "

Fortune added the "H." to Perot's name when it put him on its cover after EDS went public. "The media took to it, and it stuck," said Perot Jr.

Perot became a billionaire in 1984 when General Motors Corp. bought EDS for nearly $2.6 billion.

But the marriage of titans was short-lived, with Perot and GM chairman Roger Smith at loggerheads over such things as GM's two underfunded employee pension plans while top management's retirement plan had no such deficit.

In 1986, the automaker shelled out $750 million to buy back Perot's stock. Perot agreed to sever all ties with GM and EDS and end his public haranguing of Smith.

Unfortunately for EDS, GM didn't get a noncompete agreement.

In 1988, Perot, Perot Jr. and a handful of former EDS loyalists launched Perot Systems in Plano. The information technology services company grew to more than 23,000 employees and had an annual revenue of $2.8 billion when Dell Inc. acquired it in 2009 for $3.9 billion.

Father and son pocketed another $1 billion in that deal.

"Ross had an uncanny ability to think about six moves ahead," said former EDS executive Tom Meurer, trustee of the Perot Family Trust. "He saw things that most people didn't. It was a sixth sense."

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