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Published: 6/9/2009

Millions dream of millions, but some winners still lose

Good morning, Bert:

I d like to tell you I m feeling lucky today, but I m just about convinced it s never going to happen.

I mean, I m delighted for the young rancher who bought a Powerball ticket in a tiny South Dakota town called Winner and hit for $232 million, or $88 million after taxes, which seems like a helluva lot of taxes, by the way.

The guy who farms the land next to his, Dave Assman, said - well, I don t really care what he said. I ve just been waiting 37 years, since I wrote my first story in this business, to get away with typing Assman.

Anyhoo - the winner s family has money problems, they don t have a phone, they re behind in their property taxes and 23-year-old Neal Wanless promised he would not squander his sudden riches and that his No. 1 intention is to repay the kindness of others.

Good for him. I m happy for him and his parents and all his livestock that will probably be eating off Applebee s carry-out menu for the foreseeable future.

But I m getting tired of waiting for my turn.

I have had two neighbors hit the Ohio Lottery for far more modest amounts than our South Dakota hero, albeit amounts that ended in the word million. If you plumbed a line from one of their yards to the other, it would pass right through the yard that my wife and I and the folks down at Gouge Your Eyes Out Mortgage call our own. I ve been waiting a long time for that luck to rub off.

Speaking of wives and the lottery, one of those neighbors had just been divorced. He and she had signed the final papers that very morning, in fact. He was down and out and depressed and stopped by a convenience store for a case of Bud Light to drown his sorrows and bought $5 worth of lotto tickets on his way out the door.

His numbers hit the following day and over the next year or so his ex-wife employed about every lawyer in town to get her cut. In the end, the judge asked what time the couple had signed the papers and what time the husband had bought the ticket. He then rendered his verdict. Hizzoner made me proud to be an American.

My other neighbor who hit the lottery is one of the sweetest, gentlest guys God ever put on the face of this earth. He is also among the ultimate optimists. When he won about 10-12 years ago he agreed to take lifetime payments, not a lump sum. He was in his late 70s at the time. God bless him, he s still walking out to the mailbox everyday to make sure the next check is there.

He and his wife are great neighbors. There have never been less pretentious and more unassuming lottery winners anywhere at anytime. You d like them Bert. So would Dave Assman.

Your buddy,

Hack

Dear Luckless Old Friend:

I am really hoping for the best for our Powerball-winning friend, Mr. Wanless. If there s anything worse than winning a pot of money in the lottery, it would have to be winning a pot of money in the lottery at the feckless age of 23. Good luck with that, Neal-o.

Hack, you remember someone by the name of Jack Whittaker? He was another huge Powerball winner in West Virginia, back in 2002. Guy found out on Christmas morning that he d hit for $315 million.

this excellent (and harrowing) 2005 Washington Post article said:

The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack s Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.

Like Mr. Wanless, Mr. Whittaker also approached his unearned fortune with a spirit of generosity, giving away cars, houses, and cash to the many people who asked him for help. All in all, he reportedly gave away something like $50 million and ended up isolated and friendless.\

Worse, his teenage granddaughter ended up afflicted by affluence, too. In a position to play the ultimate indulgent grandparent, Mr. Whittaker provided the girl with - well, everything. For whatever reason, soon enough the girl was doing drugs and, just a few years after her grandfather won the lottery, her body was found in a junked car.

Mr. Whittaker -- surprise surprise-- came to feel that winning Powerball was a curse. For me, his story drives home something I ve long believed: Money is only worth so much.

I think the only way winning the lottery might work is if you can claim it anonymously. Then, maybe, you aren t besieged with all the pleading friends, relatives, and strangers. Then, maybe, you can quietly set up a foundation and do some real philanthropic good. Then, maybe, you can still lead an untrampled life.

But even then, I don t know about winning so much money. Maybe this sounds weird and possibly un-American, but I think it would horrible to suddenly be that rich. Warren Buffett is who he is because he generated his own riches, not because a pile of money fell out of the sky and onto his lap.

Mr. Buffett, who has lived in the same modest Omaha ranch house since forever, wants to die broke. Or close to it. He wants to give away most of his money. He shows few signs of dying surrounded by a useless collection of cars, boats, houses, and whatever other toys newly rich people feel they need. A string of polo ponies, maybe. Stuff like that.

Having said all that, of course, now let me close with this: In the event your lottery luck changes, please remember who your friends are. As I recall, you were the one who picked up the check at our last lunch, so I owe you - a fact I trust you ll overlook when you hit it big.

Hugs n kisses from your friend,

Bert

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roberta@theblade.com



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