The Big Payoff
OLD HABITS DIE HARD. WHEN PAM Hiatt gathers with friends at the Pacific Rim, their favorite lunch spot in downtown Boise, Idaho, she occasionally catches herself hesitating when it comes time to pay the bill. “I still worry that my credit card is going to be denied,” she says.
Not likely. Last June, the Boise State University student—unmarried, pregnant and holding down two part-time jobs—won over $87 million in the 18-state Powerball lottery. She immediately uttered the consumerist manifesto, “If I want it, I’ll buy it,” took off on a couple of shopping sprees and then settled into her new life—which turned out to be her old life. “I thought I’d drop everything and travel the world,” she says. “But my idea of a good time is still to hang out at my brother’s house and have dinner, or have a friend over for videos. I guess I’m pretty boring.”
Hiatt’s extraordinary reversal of fortune occurred on June 3, when she stopped at Jackson’s Food Store on Orchard Street to buy her morning orange juice, a doughnut—and a lottery ticket. Eight months pregnant and financially strapped despite her jobs, she had just given up the apartment she shared with two roommates in order to move in with her mother and stepfather. “There didn’t seem to be another choice,” she says. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to work and go to school after the baby came. I remember praying, ‘Please, God, let something happen so I can afford a small studio apartment.’ ”
The following morning, Jackson’s clerk Jarene Stewart told her excitedly that the winning ticket had been sold at their store. Pulling her ticket from her wallet, Hiatt asked Stewart to check the numbers: 7, 20, 21, 26, 27 and 45—the ages of her family members. “She looked at me with a smile and said, ‘Sit down, honey, I got something to tell you.’ ”
One day later, Powerball officials handed Hiatt the first of 20 annual after-tax checks for $3.1 million. That same day, Hiatt’s brother, stepsister, stepbrother, sister-in-law, mother and stepfather swarmed around the auto dealerships in Boise as Hiatt, now 27, delightedly signed checks for six vehicles. (The next week she traded in her own ’89 Honda for a black BMW 325i.)
But after a trip to New York City to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman, it was back to Boise and a new challenge: how to live a relatively normal life after hitting such a mega-jackpot. Looking for a home to buy, Hiatt was shown several mansions, but opted for a $180,000, three-bedroom ranch. “I wanted a house where you can put your feet up on the coffee table or curl up on the couch,” she says. “Besides, I needed furniture that could camouflage baby puke.”
The birth of Nicholas on June 21 added further perspective to her new life. “Winning the lottery was pretty exciting, but it can’t compare to Nicholas,” she says. “I want him to grow up caring about people and knowing the value of work. I want him to realize that everything isn’t always handed to you.”
Hiatt learned those values from her parents, Greg Hiatt, 48, a construction engineer who worked in Washington State, and Lise, 47, a homemaker. The family worked hard, she says, “but never got ahead.” Her parents divorced in 1972; 12 years later, Hiatt and her brother moved to Boise with their mother.
Graduating from high school in 1986, she enlisted in the Army and was assigned to Fort Richardson in Alaska as a personnel records clerk. It was there she met Pat Meffert, a member of the Army Special Forces. The couple married in 1989, but overseas assignments kept them apart for long periods. In 1992 they divorced, and Hiatt returned to Boise, where she enrolled at Boise State. A year and a half later, she became pregnant. Having decided not to marry the baby’s father, fellow student Todd Gabriel, 27, Hiatt broke off their relationship. “I just didn’t have the patience to make it work,” she says. Gabriel, who has no claim on Hiatt’s winnings, does have twice-weekly visitation rights with Nicholas.
In most ways, Hiatt doesn’t think she has changed. She does her own yard work and housecleaning, shops for clothes off the rack at the mall and cuts her own hair. Together with her mother, who has raised foster children in her home, she plans to start a charitable foundation for foster kids. Next spring, she plans to return to school to finish her degree and perhaps go on to study international law.
Meanwhile, there’s the mail—a constant stream of letters from suitors claiming to have excellent potential as fathers. Hiatt remains unimpressed. “I’m holding out for Val Kilmer,” she says. “Now that he’s split up, send him my way!”
Your move, Mr. Kilmer.
CATHY FREE in Boise