La Crosse area lottery winners: Winning sometimes comes with a burdenWinning the lotto, many players believe, would be the best thing to ever happen to them.
By: By Jessica Larsen, La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Superior Telegram
Editor's note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect the identities of area lottery winners.
Sarah Myers is alone.
She's lost most of her friends and family. Her ability to trust.
All because of one ticket. One $23 million Powerball ticket.
"I'm never treated like a person any more. I hate that," Myers said, her voice cracking. "To most people, I'm a bank."
Winning the lotto, many players believe, would be the best thing to ever happen to them. To suddenly find yourself living a life of luxury, with no more worries about bills. New cars, new houses, trips, leisure.
But as those little white lotto balls pop from the tumbler, most players aren't thinking about the warnings Wisconsin State Lottery officials give to every winner of $1 million or more: People will call looking for money. Your friends and family, attorneys, charity groups, financial planners, lawyers. Relatives you never even knew you had will come forward. Reporters will call wanting to tell your story. Your mail box will fill with requests from strangers -- some with sick family members, others just plain desperate or greedy -- all wanting a piece of your winnings.
State lottery officials will encourage you to change your phone number, said Andrew Bohage, a spokesman for the Wisconsin State Lottery. They'll advise you to get immediate professional help managing the money. They'll share suggestions from past lottery winners. They go over tax laws, payments and press events.
The truth is, very few players think they will actually win the jackpot, Bohage said, so finding yourself suddenly rich is always shocking to some degree.
"The reason it's popular and fun is it allows people to dream about what that will be like," Bohage said. "That's what the buck or two is buying you -- that great feeling, and the chance to win money."
Won: $23 million, Powerball, 1998; $100,000, Powerball, 2003
It was a "miracle" when Sarah Myers won.
"It took my breath away," she said.
Once a factory worker living paycheck to paycheck, Myers and her husband were instant millionaires. They built a dream home from them and their three children. Myers and her husband each got a new Dodge.
And they gave a lot of the money away. Some went to the Salvation Army. Some went to Amish neighbors. Some went to the eight children she sponsors overseas.
But the more money Myers gave away, the more friends and family she seemed to lose. Extended family members kept asking for money. She helped many: Myers bought about 20 cars and handed out more money over the years than she's willing to say. But if she questioned someone's need or said no, she often lost that person from her life.
People around the winners change, said Ed Van Petten, executive director or the Minnesota State Lottery. "People are in awe of winning that kind of money," he said.
Despite winning the lotto, Myers kept her job at the factory to stay grounded. But her co-workers told her she was stealing a job from someone else who needed it, she said.
"Sometimes you feel like you're all alone. It's sad," Myers said. "Family is the worst because they know how to get you. ... They see I feel alone, and they take advantage of that."
She eventually quit the factory and stayed on part-time at a gas station.
The money came in especially handy the next year when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and given a grim prognosis. She's been in remission but quit working.
Then her husband was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
When families get sick, neighbors reach out to help. But with Myers, many expected payment for their good deeds.
Still, after all the lost friends and family, she's glad she had the winning ticket.
"It's almost like everyone around you is taking a truth pill," she said. "You find out who is really a friend and who is family. You find out who looks at you like a person and not a bank. It's nice to know, but it's hurtful."
From: La Crosse
Won: $500,000, Powerball, 2004; $100,000, state lottery raffle, 2008; $25,000, Powerball, 2003
Dawn Fundell kept her waitressing job, even after cashing in on $625,000 in prize money she's won playing the lottery over the years.
"It really shouldn't change your life a lot," she said.
The money never altered her conservative spending views.
She and her husband, Larry, used the first $25,000 to pay off bills and help their children with college tuition. The half million payed off their home and got a truck. The rest went in the bank. Fundell also saved most of a $100,000 prize.
Those who win relatively small prizes don't think in terms of quitting their job and buying a new house, said Debbie Hoffmann, a public relations manager for the Minnesota State Lottery. Instead, it's more about securing a financial future.
Fundell admits she probably would have spent more of it on toys if she won 20 years ago.
Now, it would have been "stupid" to buy the boat or camper. The savings will come in handy when her husband retires in less than two years.
"It's good," she said. "We want something to live on in case we live to be 90."
The money did make her a more "bubbly" person, though.
"I was floating on clouds for years," she said. That feeling was rejuvenated each time she won.
"It taps into your personality," she said. "You get a high of winning."
Her friends and co-workers wanted to be around her more -- to rub off on her good luck, though they never showed jealousy.
Fundell was able to give to more charities and even handed out $100 to each of her 72 co-workers.
Still, she says she's been humble throughout each of her winnings.
"I didn't brag. I didn't want to think I was better," she said. "I'm just lucky."
From: La Crosse
Won: $100,000, Casino Royale, 1999
Sue Baker thought life would be set after she won $100,000. At the very least, she could be a little more comfortable.
Now she lives in low-income housing. She lost $40,000 of the winnings seven years ago in the stock market.
But first, she was asked by a few acquaintances for several thousands of dollars in loans.
Friends also accused of cheating. Baker was working at a former La Crescent gas station when she bought the winning ticket.
Baker started playing scratch-off tickets when they first came out.
"I thought maybe I'd win something," she said.
First, $800. Then, $8,000. Finally, the big one: $100,000.
Baker paid off her bills with the first two winnings. After she won the $100,000, she bought a new car, flew to New York twice to see her son, went to Florida and then Las Vegas with her children.
With no bills and relief finally settling in, Baker thought she would be smart and invest the rest in the stock market.
"It hurt," she said of the loss. "That was my back-up money."
Baker worked at the gas station until she retired. She doesn't play lottery games very much any more. She can't afford it on her limited income.
Still, when the jackpot gets high, she can't resist the temptation to buy a ticket.
From: La Crosse
Won: $100,000, Powerball, 2003
Mark Erickson started playing lottery so he could retire when he was 40. That didn't happen, but the $100,000 he won nine years ago is making his retirement years feel safer.
When he won, he let out a "yee-ha" and told his wife what happened. They checked, re-checked and triple checked the numbers.
Still a winner.
The couple upgraded their vehicle, replaced their central air, got a new furnace and new furniture and spent eight days in Ireland.
After they got back, though, they set the rest aside. There it still sits for a rainy day.
"I knew it wouldn't last long, but I wish it would have lasted longer than that," he said. "But I'm not going to cry over it."
It's a good cushion, Erickson said, since he and his wife retired a few years after winning.
Life didn't change much. There were no fights over how to spend it. No calls asking for a hand-out, much to his surprise.
He still plays the lottery, hoping to one day hit a really big jackpot.
"If I do, fine," he said. "If I don't, I won't regret it."
From: Caledonia, Minn.
Won: $100,000, Money Tree scratch off, 2010
A modest house still sits the same as it did before Marilyn Kennedy won.
No new furniture. No fancy paintings or new clothes. Her car is old, but it gets her to the grocery store just fine.
Kennedy took a trip to Ireland with her church -- something she was planning for before she won -- and put the rest of the money in the bank.
She has worked at the same gas station since 1989, where she still does part-time duties. It's where she bought the winning ticket.
Usually a Powerball player, Marilyn was lured to scratch offs when she was bored at work a couple of years ago.
Even after winning, she wasn't overjoyed.
"At my age, you know it's a nice rest egg," she said. "You never know what will happen or if people will need help."
No one has asked yet. "I felt guilty because more people could have used it than me," she said.
People at work still ask to buy their tickets from Marilyn. Or at the very least that she touch the ticket, so a little luck rubs off.
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