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John Rice; at 2 ft. 10 in., he created large legacy

LOS ANGELES -- John Rice was a self-made millionaire who, at 2 feet 10 inches, was in the record books as one of the world's shortest twins. But neither his wealth nor his height are what people say they will most remember about him.

Mr. Rice and his identical twin, Greg, are household names in Palm Beach County, Fla., where they prospered in real estate, ran a motivational company, and attained celebrity as the improbable television pitchmen for a local pest control company. Devoted civic boosters, they led parades, spoke at schools, visited hospitals, and hosted charity events with a brio unimaginable for two who struggled from birth against dreadful odds.

So when John Rice, the more extroverted twin, died Nov. 5, much of Palm Beach went into mourning.

He had just completed an errand at a local bank the day before when he slipped and broke his leg. He died while undergoing anesthesia for an operation to repair the bone. He was 53. An autopsy is being conducted.

As news of Mr. Rice's death spread, the flags at City Hall were lowered to half-staff. Hundreds packed his funeral a week later, and tributes poured into the local paper and a memorial website.

Many of the testimonials came from old classmates, colleagues, childhood friends, and former teachers. Other messages were sent by strangers, whose familiarity with Mr. Rice came from random contacts: He was the Christmas elf who handed out toys to children in the hospital; the sporty figure who whizzed down the sidewalk on his Segway scooter; the debonair gent who often walked his Dalmatian, Zippo, around Lake Worth, the small town about 10 miles south of West Palm Beach where he lived in the yellow cottage he had renovated.

''John was truly a Palm Beach County institution, and for us natives," said Bart Arnold, one of dozens of residents who wrote to The Palm Beach Post last week, ''it feels like a part of our soul is now gone."

The Rice brothers were abandoned shortly after their birth at a West Palm Beach hospital on Dec. 3, 1951. They lived in the hospital for eight months until Mildred and Frank Windsor became their foster parents.

Frank, a school custodian, and Mildred, a full-time mother and devout Pentecostal Christian, already had two children and had recently lost a third in childbirth. They were smitten by the tiny babies and decided to give them as normal an upbringing as possible.

''Our mother, being wise beyond her formal education, was able to convey to us that, yes, we were always going to be different, but it was OK to be different," Greg Rice said in a telephone interview last week.

''She said: 'It's up to you to determine what your real value is going to be in life. You're like a couple of dimes in a bunch of nickels.' "

That homespun philosophy didn't take all the sting out of children's taunts, but it kept the brothers going, even when Mildred Windsor died of cancer when they were in the eighth grade and their foster father died two years later. They took regular classes, shouldered their own huge backpacks on Boy Scout hikes, and played the cornet in the high school band. They seemed so at ease with themselves that other people usually found it impossible to resist their charms.

From the start, John -- older than Greg by five minutes -- was the more adventuresome of the pair.

It was John Rice's idea, for instance, to try real estate. He and Greg had been honing their sales skills since they were high school seniors selling cleaning and personal care products door to door. Mr. Rice would take one side of the street and his brother the other, checking at the end of each block to see who had sold the most. By the early 1970s, after a year of community college, they were training other salespeople for the company. When he got tired of the travel involved, Mr. Rice proposed that they switch to real estate and sell homes in Palm Beach.

They set a goal the first year of selling 50 homes. They sold 57. Eventually, they started buying and selling houses on their own. According to Greg Rice, that's how they made their first $1 million.

In the late 1980s, they launched a Sunday morning real estate show, called ''Television Home Hunt," which featured decorating, home improvement, and moving tips in addition to showcasing homes on the market. The half-hour program was airing in 30 cities around the country, before the Rices sold it in the early 1990s.

That show led them to the pest control business. They had approached a local exterminator, Hulett Environmental Services, to advertise on the program, but Hulett couldn't afford to produce its own commercials. The Rice brothers offered to make their ads in exchange for a stake in the growing company.

Greg Rice became Hulett's marketing director, while Mr. Rice wrote the commercials. Both starred in the ads, which featured them as wacky sendups of various household insects.

Since 1990, they produced 45 ads, which won industry awards and were seen in several states, in versions customized for other pest control outfits.

The Rice brothers also appeared on ''Real People," the ''Maury Povich Show," ''That Quiz Show," and in 13 episodes of ''Foul Play," a sitcom that featured them as landlords.

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