washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Washington Post Magazine

Rich Man, Poor Man

Jack Whittaker's big Powerball win cost him -- and everyone around him -- dearly

By April Witt
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page W14

It was coming up on Christmas, and Brenda-the-biscuit-lady was inexplicably happy as she walked to work in the predawn darkness. Brenda didn't just make biscuits over at the C&L Super Serve for $6 an hour. She served up good cheer.

"How you doin', honey?" she'd greet customers, with such enthusiasm that they had no choice but to smile back.


West Virginians Jack and Jewell Whittaker won a $314 million Powerball jackpot on Christmas Day 2002. (John Sommers - Reuters)

_____Live Discussion_____
April Witt will discuss her story on Monday, January 31 at 1 p.m. ET.

"Dad-gonnit, you are growing up on me!" she'd call to schoolchildren, just to see them grin. "What grade you in now?"

At 39, Brenda Higginbotham didn't have much to show for a lifetime of good cheer. No car. No home. No picture-book Christmas on the horizon. In spite of that, in spite of everything, she had a sense of her place in the world as unsullied as a holiday snowfall before folks trample it ugly, like folks do. That abiding sense was Brenda's gift.

"What do you need, dear?" she'd ask a weary workman eyeing her hot-food carryout case. For a moment, Brenda could make the man with chapped hands and muddy boots feel like somebody was looking after him.

"You want a roll with that, baby?" she'd say, smiling even bigger.

Of all her customers, the person Brenda loved to josh with most was the cowboy-man who pulled into the C&L Super Serve in Hurricane, W.Va., by 6:30 a.m. weekdays to gas up and buy breakfast. Brenda would spy him out at the pumps and start his order: two of her famous biscuits stuffed with bacon.

Brenda and the cowboy-man joshed so much that fellow clerks teased they must have some kind of "rendezvous deal" going on. Brenda would laugh and say, "It ain't like that!" She didn't even know that the cowboy-man's name was Jack. Jack Whittaker. She just knew he dressed in black like Johnny Cash and carried himself big -- big as the cowboy hat he always wore. She liked how polite and cheerful he acted, as if trouble were a stranger.

In the days before Christmas in 2002, Jack bought a Powerball lottery ticket along with his biscuits. Some fools couldn't get enough of those tickets. Not the cowboy-man. He'd buy one only when the jackpot got big, like anything less than a couple hundred million wasn't worth his trouble.

On Christmas Day, the lottery ticket-buying frenzy peaked at 3:26 p.m. In convenience stores and gas stations across West Virginia, 15 people every second commemorated Jesus's birthday by plunking down $1 for a chance at a different kind of salvation: that Powerball jackpot.

It was about 11 o'clock Christmas night 2002 when Channel 3 out of Charleston announced what it said were the winning Powerball numbers. Jack was slumbering when his wife of nearly 40 years, Jewell, jostled him awake to say that his lottery ticket matched four out of five. Jack was clueless about what kind of payoff a four-number match brought, but he figured it had to be good for at least $100,000. He went back to sleep while visions of a six-figure windfall danced in his head.

The next morning, as always, he rose at 4:30 to get to work. Jack, 55, had been working construction since he was a poor 14-year-old in the hills. He'd built himself a nice life in this patch of West Virginia hard by the Kentucky and Ohio borders. He had a wife and a granddaughter who basked in his attentions, a brick house in a nice subdivision in neighboring Scott Depot, and a water and sewer pipe-laying business that employed more than 100 people. At 5:15 a.m., Jack snapped on the television and heard, to his surprise, that the winning ticket had been sold at the C&L Super Serve. What are the odds, Jack later said he was thinking, that one little convenience store would sell two lucky tickets? Just then the winning numbers flashed. The numbers broadcast the night before had been wrong. He had a match on all five numbers, not four.

Jack Whittaker had just won $314 million, the largest undivided lottery jackpot in history.

A few hours later, he ambled into the C&L Super Serve and calmly handed Brenda a bill, saying he'd been meaning to give it to her before Christmas. Brenda figured it was a $1 tip for helping him diet, taking care to pinch a little dough out of his bacon biscuits so the cowboy-man's big burly wouldn't go soft.

"He handed me a $100 bill!" Brenda recalls. "I looked at it, and I'm, like, 'Oh, no, no, no. I'm not taking this from you.' And he's, like, 'Oh, yes, you are.'"

Then it hit her.

"Did you win?" Brenda whispered.

Jack nodded and grinned.

The day would come when many West Virginians recalled the story of Jack's Powerball Christmas with a shudder at the magnitude of ruination: families asunder, precious lambs six feet under, folks undone by the lure of all that easy money.

But for now, Jack's big win was viewed as one of the greatest Christmas gifts in his poor state's history, a holiday miracle to be heralded around the globe. Jack proclaimed that he would tithe a biblical 10 percent of his winnings, donate millions to his family's favorite pastors and build big new churches. He vowed to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. "I just want to thank God for letting me pick the right numbers . . . or letting the machine pick the right numbers," he said as he claimed his check.

Civic-minded citizens hailed Jack as a hero, the state's antidote to mean-spirited hillbilly jokes. Sure, dental woes had left the strapping cowboy-man without a tooth in his head. But Jack sounded so well-intentioned on TV that some people said he should run for governor.

The day after Jack claimed his prize, Brenda was at the C&L Super Serve when she heard him on the radio saying he was going to share his big win with her along with the clerk who'd sold him his winning ticket. Brenda nearly collapsed.

"Lightning has struck," intoned "Good Morning America's" Charles Gibson. "Where better for it to happen than a place called Hurricane?"

Some West Virginians tell a joke about the hillbilly who died smiling.

"What'd he die of?" the man's relatives asked the medical examiner. "He was struck by lightning," the medical examiner declared.

"Then why was he smiling?" the kinfolks wanted to know.

"Well," the ME said, "he thought he was gettin' his picture took."

Jack had his picture taken so much after his big win that he couldn't have been more instantly recognizable in West Virginia if he'd been Elvis reincarnated. He starred in a half-hour live broad-cast across his home state and appeared on network morning shows to introduce his family to the nation.

Jewell seemed quiet and shy on TV. She let it be known that she was so down-to-earth she actually enjoyed scrubbing her toilets. Their 15-year-old granddaughter, Brandi Bragg, announced that she was hoping to meet the rap star Nelly and buy a blue Mitsubishi Eclipse.

Jack declared that he was going to leave the power-shopping to the gals. He radiated a confident individualism. When a Charleston television interviewer pointed out that his all-black outfits were "sort of a Johnny Cash look," Jack corrected her. "It's a Jack Whittaker look," he said.

Asked if he considered himself a role model, he replied: "I want to be a good example. I want to make people proud of what happens with this winning. I want to promote goodwill and help people."

Jack opted to take his prize as a one-time payout of $113,386,407.77, after taxes. He was determined, he said at the time, to live as if nothing had changed, except that he could spend more time with his family. He was going to keep answering his own phone, opening his own front door and turning to God for guidance. "He's still working on me," Jack said, sounding modest.

On New Year's Eve 2002, West Virginia's most famous do-gooder strolled into the Pink Pony, a strip club in the nearby town of Cross Lanes, and, according to the manager, slapped $50,000 on the bar.

"I swallowed my bubble gum," recalls general manager Michael Dunn, who says flashing all that cash "was just a stupid gesture." There are people in this world who'll knock you in the head for $5. "My worst nightmare was waking up in the morning and reading in the paper that Jack Whittaker got rolled at the Pink Pony. I said: 'Please put that money away. Please don't do that again.'"

Jack didn't respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. According to Dunn, Jack put away the cash but made it clear that he was there to whoop it up. He whooped it up so much that he couldn't drive home. "I stuck his butt in a limo at the end of the night," Dunn says.

Most everybody in West Virginia had an opinion on how Jack should spend his fortune: Fix potholes; put a new roof on the library; spay cats and dogs; buy a coloring book for every kid.


CONTINUED    1 2 3 4 5    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company