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Winners wish they'd lain low

Jan 9, 2004, 5:47 am

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After the Big Win

Anonymous veteran millionaires share drawbacks of hitting jackpot

Talk to former lottery winners and they agree -- the biggest mistake Mega Millions jackpot winner Rebecca Jemison made this week was coming forward herself to claim her winnings.

"She's going to be hounded," said an Akron-area man who won $8 million about a decade ago.

It seems keeping a low profile, if that's possible when the paparazzi are on your tail, is vitally important when you realize that the little piece of paper stuck between your forefinger and thumb is worth enough to buy a boatload of LeBron James signature sneakers.

"She should have hired an attorney to claim the ticket for her and remained anonymous," explained a local woman who, with her husband, won $4 million a few years back.

Marie Kilbane Seckers, a spokesperson for the Ohio Lottery Commission, confirmed Jemison could have done that by using what's known as a blind trust, set up by an attorney.

But in the midst of all the excitement, many winners don't think about sending someone else to claim their prize. It's only later, when they're more experienced at dealing with annoying pleas for handouts, that they discover they should have remained silent.

Locating area winners years after they hit it big is a little tricky. It seems they long to blend into the crowd with us losers. Some have moved, others have changed their phone numbers to avoid calls from folks such as pesky reporters, a few have gone south for the winter and most hesitate even admitting to the fact that they're millionaires thanks to the biggest games in the land. And who can blame them?

Still, a few agreed to talk with us, and at the same time give $162 million jackpot winner Jemison and her husband, Sam, some advice -- provided we guaranteed their anonymity.

"Everything has kind of died down," in the last several years, said the $4 million winner. "People still know that we won, but it's not such a big issue anymore. I like that. I like not being popular. I had my 15 minutes of fame and that was enough -- actually too much."

Besides suggesting that the Jemisons hide their heads in paper bags for the next millennium, the local veteran winners had plenty of advice and experiences to share with Ohio's newest millionaires.

While it might be hard to fathom, winning the lottery can have its drawbacks.

"It was hell at first because we always felt like we owed somebody something and no matter how much we gave them, they always thought it wasn't enough," said a woman who won $8 million. "And, at night, I was sort of leery about going out because I always felt somebody was going to hit me over the head and kidnap me for the ransom. That's one thing she (Jemison) is going to think about -- I know she is.

"Enjoy the money, but don't go crazy. And don't change your personality," said the woman with the wonderful sense of humor. "I still do my own hair, do my own nails and clean the toilets. People might expect me to dress better... but I like to walk around in my old clothes. It's a funny thing because money can change some people, but not all of us. I think it's the way I was brought up; I lived poorly for years."

Because of her humble beginnings, her children tell her she's now living a Cinderella fairy tale thanks to her husband, Prince Charming, who bought the ticket.

Mr. Charming says when it comes to investing, the Jemisons should keep a cool head.

"Once people know that you have money, everybody is going to be after it," he said. "I went to a reputable bank. A trust attorney helped me... write a trust agreement so that my family... is taken care of in the dvent that something happens. I suggest putting your money right into a trust."

The Akron-area lottery guru admits he continues to play the game of luck.

"I'll probably win again," he said with a chuckle.

The fortunate ones say the best thing about striking it rich is getting out of debt. But for the $4 million winner, along with the cash came some heartbreak.

"My husband and I have divorced since winning," she said, her voice fading ever so slightly. "And part of the reason was the money."

There are some things money just can't buy.

If dreams came true

Chances are, you're not one of the lucky ones. Perhaps you've made a pilgrimage each week to your favorite corner market, handed the cashier a couple bucks, and crossed your fingers in hopes of hitting it big. On the trip home, you may have thought about how you would handle the winnings.

Though they've never hit the jackpot, there were lots of folks Thursday who were willing to share their own dreams, as well as suggestions for the lucky couple from South Euclid.

At the Merriman Valley Barber Shop, where customer David Fleshman of Akron was waiting to get his ears lowered, owner Mike Kraus said he's "donated" enough to the lottery in his lifetime, and now he only plays when the jackpot is simply too high to resist.

"I'm a laid-off carpenter," Fleshman said, "so, if I won, I would buy houses and rehab them."

As far as sharing his wealth, Fleshman said the greatest thing about having that kind of money is "being able to help people who really need help. I would love that."

At the Bessay Salon in Akron, co-owner Cordell Slack, who plays the lottery about once a month, said if he won, he would pay off his bills, quit work, invest the money, buy his parents a large home, make plans to send his son to an Ivy League college and travel.

As far as Jemison, Slack said she should definitely "leave Ohio" and relocate someplace where no one knows her name or her face.

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