Odds don't always favor the big winners

Friday, December 26, 2003

So, the presents have all been opened and you might even already be plotting the right time to return that sweater from the in-laws or contemplating changing your address to avoid the January credit card bills.

On what could be become something of a national sobering up day, (Canada has its Boxing Day. Maybe the U.S. could have its Buyers' Remorse Day.) it might give one a better perspective to review the story of Jack Whittaker, who might have been widely considered the luckiest man in the world last Christmas. Whittaker, for those with short memories (like me), was the winner of the richest undivided lottery jackpot -- the $314.9 million Powerball prize a year ago this time.

Whittaker's windfall boiled down to $113 million in a lump sum, after-tax payment. While quite a bit different than the $314-plus million jackpot advertised, I know anybody would still consider themselves quite wealthy with the post-tax check.

Whittaker does consider himself to be an extremely well-off man. He had already built a multi-million dollar contracting business before hitting the right combination of numbers. He also stepped boldly into the media spotlight after winning at Powerball, saying he would give a tenth of the winnings to his church and also share his fortune with others.

So, how is Jack's life 366 days later?

Well, he still operates his business and still lives in the same house. His wife still answers the door. But there's also a lot that has changed. Now his comings and goings at home and the office are monitored by security guards. Lined up on three walls of his new conference room are hip-high filing cabinets containing nothing but letters wanting money. He's spent $45 million in the last 12 months, much of it to buy West Virginia and Ohio properties with his eye on commercial development. About $14 million has gone to charity, about half through his foundation dedicated to helping West Virginians find jobs, get an education or buy food. Oh, before helping somebody Whittaker also employs a private investigator to check them out.

His successful business is even more successful, more than doubling its amount of annual contracts and number of persons employed in the peak season. More than $7 million, he says, has gone to three Church of God pastors. All of that sounds a little inconvenient, but livable.

But dig a little deeper.

He has also found out that media attention is a two-edged sword. They love you when you bring the granddaughter to a news conference to announce the winning numbers are yours. They also love it when you're caught whipping open a briefcase filled with more than a half million in cash and checks at a strip club. Police say Whittaker's habits include high-stakes gambling at a casino and dog track along with frequent visits to strip joints. Whittaker himself deems such parts of his life off limits during interviews.

What he will discuss isn't all merry and bright, either. He complains his granddaughter is "the most bitter 16-year-old I know" because the only thing her peers see in her is dollar signs. His wife is sick of dealing with people who call or show up on the doorstep begging for a handout. A man who used to work 14-hour days, Jack now puts in even longer hours on a regular basis. "I was hoping I could start taking naps in the afternoon," he was quoted as saying, "but that hasn't happened yet."

I hope I'm not a big enough hypocrite to say that I'm a better person, morals-wise, than Jack Whittaker. I hope that maybe we all have a better understanding, though, of what the odds are of winning true happiness.

Hmmmm. Does anybody already have the movie rights to "A Christmas Carol II?"