Dec 27, 2014, 12:42 pm
Mike Wittkowski is no longer famous, and he's just fine with that.
In 1984, he was a 28-year-old North Side bachelor dreaming of hitting it big — just like everybody else — in a relatively new Illinois Lotto game that was building to a $40 million jackpot.
Unlike everybody else Sept. 1, he did win, picking the numbers 2-3-10-26-30-43 and pocketing what was at the time the single-largest lottery prize in U.S. history.
Flashback reader Bob Angone, of the South Loop, said he was at a wedding that Saturday and the "whole affair was put on hold" while the winning numbers were announced. Jim Michie, of Palatine, remembered the hype and asked about the winner. "I always wondered what happened to the man and how the prize affected him," Michie wrote.
Well, by all reports, the prize didn't change Wittkowski one little bit, which is exactly what his friend predicted. Mike Jarecki told the Tribune on Sept. 3, 1984, "He's not going to change much. I mean, he'll be wearing jeans and gym shoes a few months from now, but he'll have that $40 million in his pockets."
Wittkowski said last week that he survived the tumult and temptation because of his family. "The first couple of months were crazy. Insane," he said. "I was getting death threats and bomb threats. But I had all the support in the world," he said.
He shared the money with his father, brother and sister, successfully appealing to the Illinois Lottery Control Board that November to declare all four of them equal winners, which saved the family tons of dough in taxes versus Wittkowski collecting the money and gifting portions of it to them.
While he tried to go back to his $20,000-a-year printing job, it didn't in the end make much sense, and he retired. He married his fiancée and started a family. "(The lottery win) gave me freedom and made things a whole lot easier," he said.
One of the enduring elements of Wittkowski's story, something that helped cement his guy-next-door reputation that so many Chicagoans remembered, was a comment he made — he thinks he said it on that first crazy day — that he was going to buy a bowling alley with his newfound fortune.
"That was just an offhand comment," Wittkowski explained last week in setting the record straight. "It blew up into something. I never did buy a bowling alley."
The lottery checks stopped coming 10 years ago, and Wittkowski said the historic windfall never comes up in conversation anymore, and "that's the way I like it."
For Wittkowski, winning the lottery 30 years ago was "absolutely" the luckiest thing that ever happened to him, but it wasn't the best thing. "That's gotta be my kids — my three boys — and my wife," he said.
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