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Who's laughing now? Jokester is $258 million richer

Sep 24, 2005, 12:30 pm

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Mega Millions

Last week, he was a guy who drove a Toyota Camry to work trying to convince people they needed to buy pots and pans, a guy whose shtick was mildly amusing -- at best -- to friends, a guy whose own wife said he talked too much.

But on Friday, Harold Lerner got to do his shtick in front of hundreds of people and more than a dozen television cameras, knowing he probably had more money than all of them combined. He and his wife, Helen, were introduced at a press conference as the sole winners of a $258 million Mega Millions jackpot, the largest single-ticket win in New Jersey history.

And suddenly, everyone was hanging on every joke and wisecrack the 60-year-old Rutherford man made, from how he hid the winning ticket in his wife's lingerie drawer ("It was either that or my underwear drawer; it was an easy choice") to pretending he was an Internal Revenue Service agent who would audit every reporter who asked him a question.

He said the only things he and his wife had ever won before were a pair of Yankees tickets and a frozen turkey.

When asked how old he was, he replied that he was 27 and his wife 21. He joked about being suspicious of the lottery commission security official who took his ticket, and nearly giggled when he talked about how he and his wife walked around town for 48 hours, telling no one the big news until the lottery commission offices opened Monday morning.

"Saturday morning we received a phone call from our friend telling us somebody in Rutherford bought the winning ticket," Harold Lerner said. "I'm thinking, "It can't be me.' Little did I know it was my wife who purchased the ticket. We ran downstairs, on the top of the newspaper were the five numbers, and I read off the numbers.

"She says, "Honey, I think we're millionaires,"' he said. "We hugged, kissed and embraced. I'm thinking, "This can't be right, maybe we made a mistake.' We checked it 500 times."

But the winning numbers from the Sept. 16 drawing -- 5, 16, 41, 46, 50 and the Gold Mega Ball number 1 -- were all there. They got paranoid, Helen Lerner said, and stashed the ticket in her underwear drawer. Then they went for a walk around town, where residents were still buzzing about the as-yet unknown lottery winner.

"We're trying to be very cool about this," Harold Lerner said. They went to a friend's party that weekend, still telling no one their secret.

On Monday, a longtime family friend who is an attorney accompanied them to lottery headquarters to start the claims process. Since Helen Lerner, who bought the ticket, chose the cash option, they will get a total of $156.1 million, before federal taxes take about one-fourth of that, lottery officials said.

Besides being New Jersey's largest single-ticket jackpot, the Lerners' prize also is the fifth-largest lottery jackpot ever awarded in the U.S., lottery officials said. Mega Millions is played in California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Helen Lerner, who used to live in Ocean City and formerly worked for a drug wholesaler, said she only plays the lottery when the jackpot exceeds $100 million.

They said some of their winnings would go toward Hurricane Katrina victims, as well as to Seton Hall University, where Helen Lerner graduated in 1976.

"I know that God is good," said Monsignor Robert Sheeran, Seton Hall's president. "But sometimes God is very, very good. Today is one of those days."

Harold Lerner said he would buy a yellow Checker taxi, a reminder of his childhood in Brooklyn, and give anyone who wanted one a free ride.

"We're really in dreamland at this point," he said. "I still don't believe it."

He said the couple would wait awhile before determining how to spend their unfathomable riches, and his wife said she had one purchase in mind, but would not say what it was. They say they plan to stay in Rutherford, where they've lived for the past 12 years, and try to live as normal a life as possible.

Both, however, are retired, effective immediately. And that's no joke.

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