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No Longer the Biggest Lottery Winner Ever, a Chicagoan Reclaims a Different Prize: His Privacy

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Last month Donald Woomer, 55, a Hollidaysburg, Pa., plasterer, and his live-in girlfriend, Linda Despot, 37, a bookkeeper, won $46 million in the Pennsylvania state lottery. It was the largest prize ever awarded a single winner or couple in North America, and understandably the two were elated. But even happier was Michael Wittkowski.

Until Woomer and Despot superseded him, Wittkowski, 31, was the biggest lottery winner ever, having walked away with $40 million in the Illinois state lottery in September 1984. From that moment Wittkowski, formerly a $25,000-a-year press operator for a check-printing company, became the target of a parade of reporters, autograph seekers, opportunists and kooks. “People didn’t see me, they saw the $40 million man, which I’m not,” he says. In fact he splits a $2 million annual payout equally with his father, sister and brother. After Uncle Sam takes a sizable chunk off the top, Wittkowski is left with an annual income of more than $250,000. Having so much money was a difficult adjustment for the unassuming Wittkowski (whose tastes run to burgers, pizza and bowling), and his then-fiancée, Fran Pappas, who was a switchboard operator.

Not that he’s complaining. Thanks to investments, Wittkowski’s financial future is secure, even after the payments stop in the year 2004. He and Fran married two years ago and live comfortably and unpretentiously in one of Chicago’s northwest suburbs. They keep an unlisted number and have most of their calls and letters screened by their attorney. Wittkowski offers two pieces of advice to Woomer and Despot. One: “Relax and enjoy it.” Two: “Get a lawyer.” Wittkowski spoke with correspondent Civia Tamarkin about the impact his jackpot has had on his life.

It is still hard to believe what has happened to me over the last three years. I know that I’ve got money, because I see the check every year. But it still seems unbelievable that I don’t have the daily worries other people do. I mean, I was a guy who always had six bucks in his checking account. I had a good job, but I also had a good time. I would borrow money from Fran, and she would get upset and say, “How are we going to afford to get married or buy a house?” And I’d say, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

My father, my brother, my sister and I played the lottery every week. We’d each chip in $5. Over the years we had won only about $22, which we used to buy more tickets. When the lottery went up to $40 million we told my father to buy 20 extra, and we all gave him numbers to play.

That week we got lucky. Technically, I guess I was the winner because I had picked the numbers, but our family always planned on splitting anything we won. The lottery people had a problem with that. I had signed the back of the ticket because I hadn’t known any better. You got a ticket worth $40 million, you sign it. We even took pictures of it. When we turned the ticket in we told them it was the family who had won, but they still wrote the check just to me. So we appealed to the lottery board. After six weeks the board decided in our favor. Now the check is sent to the Wittkowski Partnership. It’s ridiculous. What was once a few quick words between family members is now a 27-page document.

During this time the pressure from the press got so bad that I took off for Hawaii for a while and didn’t tell anybody except my family and friends where I was. That’s when the rumors started. One report said I had died of a cocaine overdose. Others said that I had bought an island in the Caribbean or that I had dumped my fiancée, given her a million dollars and gone back with my ex-wife. And I hadn’t even been married before! One night I fell asleep with the TV on and the next morning I woke up and heard a newscaster say, “Michael Wittkowski, where are you?”

I had never thought about becoming a celebrity, although I had always wanted to have my name in the newspaper for something other than the obituary. So the publicity was neat in the beginning. But it stopped being fun when I started having to sneak out my back door to go bowling because there were minicams in front of the house. I couldn’t sit in a restaurant without people staring at me or without being bothered by reporters. In bars, I’d be asked to sign autographs on cocktail napkins. To this day I don’t know why anybody would want my autograph. It’s not like I had done something special. I just happened to get lucky.

The lack of privacy was tough, especially on Fran. People would come up to talk to me, and it was like she wasn’t even there. Then she had to put up with people telling her that I was going to dump her. At her office they had a betting pool on when I would leave her—and these were her friends. She never really worried that I would leave her, and I knew I wouldn’t. She loved me before I had a dime, so I knew she wanted me and not anything else.

Otherwise, I had to deal with a lot of weird people. Everybody thinks I have $40 million in my mattress at home. I got thousands of letters asking for money. One letter was 27 pages long and was supposed to be from a 4½-and-a-half-year-old kid who just learned to write. He was hyphenating words I didn’t even know were hyphenated. I got another one from a guy in Bhopal, India, who told me he wanted to come to the U.S. to be a doctor and that he’d be my houseboy while he went to medical school. If I didn’t sponsor him, he said, he would have no recourse but to kill himself.

Then there was the guy who told me the date, the time and the exact window in downtown Chicago from which I was to throw out $1 million or the world was going to come to an end. Probably the worst experience, though, was the bomb threat that was received by the local police. Nobody likes people with money, so we got a lot of threats. But what can you do? I don’t drive around in a bulletproof limousine. I don’t live with fear.

I still get calls and letters, but there is a limit to what I can do. So we’ve stayed with the regular charities and helped out a few friends. The biggest problem is that people don’t understand that I’ve got bills like everybody else. I’ve got a mortgage. I live on a budget. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I have the security of knowing I’m always going to have an income, but there are corporate executives who can spit the kind of money I get a year.

Not long after I won, I went back to my job; I wanted some normality in my life. But things got out of hand there too. The company has tours through the plant for bankers, and I became a main attraction. They wanted to see the big presses, the computer room and Mike Wittkowski. It was distracting to everyone, so the management and I decided I should retire.

For the next year I stayed home, sleeping until noon, sitting on my duff watching soap operas and getting fat. I was bored stiff, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do, although everybody else had ideas. Every time I would come up with something, like buying a bowling alley, someone would tell me I was stupid. My wife and family were the only ones who felt the way I did. They wanted me to do something, but wanted me to make sure it was right for me. Finally I decided to buy a liquor store with my wife’s brother. I put in 30 or 40 hours a week working behind the register, stocking the cooler—even making deliveries. I also just opened a bar and pizza restaurant with a friend.

I couldn’t have kept my sanity without my family and friends. They would tear into me real bad if I started getting haughty. That helped me keep my values. I didn’t go out and buy on impulse when I won. I traded in my Camaro for a little Chevy Blazer. We finally bought Fran a car when hers burned up in the driveway. I always wanted a beautiful home, and we have a beautiful home. I always wanted to go to Hawaii, and we went to Hawaii. We went to Australia and Tahiti on our honeymoon. Other than that, financial security is what I always wanted, so I’m set. Fran and I have kept our perspective because that’s what our parents taught us. We still shop the sales, and I still look at prices at the grocery store. Now that the people in Pennsylvania have won, my family and I feel wonderful that somebody else is going to get all the attention. Let them have it. We’re happy to fade into the sunset and let someone else take over.