FROM MAC ‘N’ CHEESE TO MILLIONS
JACKPOT $95 MILLION
In less time than it takes to say “tuna surprise,” fate transformed Donna Lange and 15 of her coworkers from lunch ladies into ladies who lunch. On Oct. 26 the women—all but one employed in the high school cafeteria in tiny Holdingford, Minn.—discovered that one of the four tickets Lange’s husband bought for the gang had hit a $190-million Powerball jackpot. (The holder of the other winning ticket—Indiana secretary and single mom Regina Mandabach, 29, came forward Oct. 29.) That nets out to a tidy $2.1 million each after taxes, under the lump-sum payment option many in the group selected. “My son said, ‘Mom, does this mean I can go to college?’ ” assistant cook Judith Feia, 40, says her 12-year-old son asked her. “And I said, ‘Blaine, you can go to any college you want.’ He teared up, and he choked me up too.”
So far, though, few of the winners in this farming community of 735,98 miles northwest of St. Paul, have made firm plans for their windfall. Not only did all the new millionaires show up for work bright and early the day after learning the big news—”the kids need to be fed,” explains supervisor Karen Overman, 57—but only Lange and custodian Alice Kobylinski, 54, have quit their jobs. “I’m comfortable when I’m here. I go home, and I start panicking,” says Feia. “I’m not used to people coming up and wanting to touch me because I’m a millionaire.”
A PULL OF A HANDLE AND A CASCADE OF RICHES
Standing in the casino at the Tropicana Atlantic City, Stephen Gilbert watched as his mother, Shelly, came rushing up to him, crying hysterically and out of breath. “She couldn’t even talk,” recalls Gilbert, 28, a carpenter from Hicksville, N.Y. “After about a minute she finally spit it out. I thought she said $5,000.” Make that five hundred thousand dollars—as in the $530,392.48 that Stephen’s wife, Christina, 27, had just hit in a jackpot at the slot machines. But even the happy winner was having trouble grasping the extent of her good fortune. “My legs were like Jell-O, my heart was palpitating,” says Christina, who a little while earlier had swiped $25 from her husband’s pants pocket so she could keep playing. “I was there, but it didn’t feel real. It didn’t sink in.”
Since that day 11 months ago, the Gilberts—who walked away with about $200,000 after taxes—have tried to keep things simple. “I don’t want it to change our life,” says Stephen, who still works six days a week. Christina has kept her job as an office manager for an occupational therapist. They did splurge on a new kitchen for their home and vacation trips for themselves (Hawaii) and their parents (the Bahamas, his, England, hers)—and that’s about it. “This hasn’t changed the road we were on before—not a bit,” says Christina. “We’re just going a little bit faster, that’s all.”
QUIZ WHIZ WINS $1M+ ON JEOPARDY!
JEOPARDY! $1.15 MILLION
Answer: A $60,000 Boxster S Porsche.
Question: On what did Brad Rutter splurge after taking home $1 million as Jeopardy!’s biggest winner ever?
And that was after scoring $155,000 and two Camaros in earlier Jeopardy! triumphs. Before becoming trivia king in May’02, “I had no direction,” admits Rutter, 25, a college dropout. “But now I can afford to have no direction.”
Rutter—a lit and history buff who spent hours memorizing “stuff I wasn’t strong on,” including opera factoids—was also able to move out of his parents’ Lancaster, Pa., home into a rented apartment. He took his family to London for Christmas and later spent a week in Puerto Rico. Says Rutter, who just signed a deal to have his own game show air on local TV next year: “I have no worries.”
Well, maybe one. “Jeopardy!,” says this very single guy, “doesn’t do well in the 20-year-old-girl demographic.”
DRILLING FOR A MIL
CARPENTRY $1 MILLION
King of the Drill? When Mark Martin rushed over to his best friend Jon Smith’s home on April Fool’s Day last year with a flyer for a contest to find America’s fastest screw-driver, it sounded a bit, well, screwy. But Martin wasn’t joking. The DeWalt Industrial Tool Co., he explained, would award the title—along with a 825,000 prize and Chevy truck—to the guy who could most quickly drive five 1 5/8″ screws into a piece of wood with a 14.4-volt cordless drill (a DeWalt, natch). The winner could then try for a $1 million grand prize by beating DeWalt’s arbitrary 7-second target. “We are going to do this!” the Delaware, Ohio, contractor vowed.
For seven months, Martin, 30, and Smith, 28, who owns a small contracting firm, cheered each other on by phone from their garages, where they had built replicas of the competition workstand. Timing themselves, they drilled t sands of screws. Their wives, reports Martin, deemed them “excessive.”
But it paid off: At the November ’02 finals, Smith nailed the mil with a time of 6.66 seconds. He called his pal to the podium and pledged to help him try again. Said Smith: “I couldn’t have done it without him.”
BEER TODAY, BIG BUCKS TOMORROW
CONTEST QUEEN $1.1 MILLION+
The Valentine’s Day mail brought the missive that changed Margaret Hodgson’s life. Nope, not a proposal, but still something pretty special—the news that the Snellville, Ga., engineer had won the 1994 Bud Bowl sweepstakes to the tune of $50,000 annually for the next 20 years. “You’d think the excitement would wear off—it hasn’t,” says Hodgson, 43. Even now, nine years later, “I wake up and I think, ‘I still have the money!’ ”
Hodgson has acquired a lot of other stuff too, since she quit her job in 1998 to focus on her passion—sweepstakes and contests. (“The more difficult the rules are,” she says, “the more people will give up.”) Among her booty: a 22-ft. Lowe Suncruiser Tahiti 224 motorboat, a silver 2000 Ford Taurus (her vanity plate reads “2Lucky”) and a luxury cruise for two to the Bahamas. She’s also won three grills, a TV, a stereo (which she traded for orthodontic work) and much, much more. “Everybody teases me,” Hodgson reports. “They say the only thing I buy is beer and postage.”
PLAYING HIS CARDS FOR MILLIONS (AND THAT’S NO BLUFF)
POKER ACE MEGA-MILLIONS
As a 5-year-old in Dayton, David “Chip” Reese was already cleaning out his pals at poker, using baseball cards as chips. Today he’s doing pretty much the same thing, only at the kind of tables where you need a $100,000 stake just to take a seat and can win (or lose) $2 million in a single game. Says legendary Vegas gambling impresario Jack Binion of Reese, who was on his way to enroll at the Stanford Business School when he entered a Vegas seven-card-stud tournament as a lark, won over $60,000 and decided to stay: “He’s the premier poker player in the world right now.”
Since turning pro almost 29 years ago, the Dartmouth economics grad, now 52, has consistently managed to remain among the highest rollers. (“Just say my annual winnings are in the millions and that I pay a lot of taxes,” he says with a smile.) His earnings support the married father of three and his family in style: a 13,000-sq.-ft. home in Vegas, an oceanfront Santa Monica condo (“because I play in L.A. a lot”) and an almost-completed lakeside spread in Montana. Then there are the splurges, like the time Reese and wife Noralene, 50, a former hairstylist, spent a week scuba diving in Fiji. Or the night he bought a Hummer for $45,000 at an auction to benefit a Las Vegas hospice. “I didn’t need a car”—he and his wife already drive BMWs—”but it was for charity, and my son has always wanted me to get a Hummer.”
Indeed, what appears to motivate Reese—who says he once “astonished” an opponent by leaving a table at which he had lost $700,000 to watch his son’s Little League contest—seems less the lucre than the lure of the game. “At the top level of poker, you have to have the raw ability, but you really have to have character,” he says. “It’s like gladiators in a ring—only the strong survive.”
What has kept Reese among gambling’s royalty for so long seems to be a combination of smarts, self-discipline and sangfroid. “I can bet $100,000 and feel nothing,” he observes. “If you think about the money and what it means, you’re gone.”
COOKING FOR DOUGH 20 WINS
Ever since Beth Royals, trying to up the nutrition level of her then 4-year-old son’s favorite breakfast, invented Let Them Eat Pancakes—buttermilk flapjacks piled high, frosted with strawberry yogurt and cream cheese and garnished with strawberries and bananas—and won $500 in toys from a Nick Jr. Magazine cooking contest, she has given Sara Lee a run for her money. With her Chocolate Oatmeal Jumbles and Banana Toffee Coffeecakes, Royals, 37, a sales rep from Richmond, Va., has cooked her way to 20 kitchen victories—getting everything from a refrigerator to a year’s supply of chocolate.
Husband John, 38, also a sales rep, serves as her top taster. “The only drawback,” he says, “is it’s easy to put on weight when she’s got four cheesecakes out.”
Writers: Bill Hewitt, Pam Lambert, Christina Cheakalos
Reported by: Steve Barnes in Tunica, Miss., Kimberly Brown in Snellville, Ga., Robert Calandra in Lancaster, Pa., Theresa Crapanzano in Richmond, Va., Tamara Crockett in Tallahassee, Fla., Caroline Howard in Hicksville, N.Y., Susan Keating and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., and David Searls in Delaware, Ohio