July 26, 2004 12:00 PM

A few weeks ago, Geraldine Williams was hanging out with her neighbors in Lowell, Mass., shooting the breeze on their front steps. “She said, ‘I wish I could win a million dollars one day so I could go and travel,’ ” recalls Frank Morales, 61, who lives next door.

The universe, it seems, was listening. On July 2 the 67-year-old retired janitor beat 135 million-to-one odds to win the $294 million jackpot in the multistate Mega Millions lottery. When she realized she had the lucky numbers, Williams told reporters at a July 9 press conference, “I just said, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, it’s me!’ ” Opting to take a $168 million lumpsum payout—$117.6 million after taxes—the media-shy, divorced mother of three kept her haul secret for a week, even while friends were discussing the mystery lottery winner at a Fourth of July barbecue. “They thought it was a fireman,” said Williams. “I just went along with it.”

Williams, who was a Marine in the 1950s, toiled for 15 years as a janitor at a local college until she retired two years ago. She has supplemented her pension ever since by cleaning houses. So far her only plans for the lucre are college funds for her eight grandchildren and golflessons to improve her game. “I don’t know what it is to have money,” said a tearful Williams. “I hope I stay the same.”

Friends don’t expect any radical change. “She’s too nice a person,” says her pal of 20 years, Mitchell Zalewski, 56, a supermarket manager. Besides, old habits die hard. Just after she learned of her win, Williams was driving around the neighborhood when she spotted a yard sale. Her longtime partner, Thomas Scanlon, 65, a retired transit authority manager, had to give her a reality check: “I said, ‘Hey, all that stuff is free,’ and Tom said, ‘Come on!’ ”

You May Like