The night the Maryland lottery made Robert Bronson a millionaire his wife told him it would ruin their marriage. Seventeen months later they were divorced.
The lottery lightning that struck Bronson and Maryland's 13 other millionaires who get their winnings in 20 annual installments can bring anything from upheaval to security, from happiness to devastation. The stories of some of the winners show the only thing they have in common is the $50,000 check they get from Maryland each year.
Since Bronson struck it rich in 1974 he has bought and sold a bait house on a Texas lake, a couple of antique stores, a furniture business, some houses and land and a few assorted trucks and cars. He has given his ex-wife custody of the children, won them back and given them up again. Now he wants them back. He has applied for veterinary school, gotten in and changed him mind. Now he is living in a small Texas town, waiting to find out if he passed his test for a real estate salemen's license and looking at land in Colorado.
"I think I'm finally getting straightened out," said Bronson, who'll turn 28 next week. "As far as the money goes, I'm just wishing up that I was not handling it properly. I spent it, went through it . . . I've got some land here yet, a few trucks. But I've wasted it," he said of the $50,000 check he has received each year since winning. But the lottery guaranteed him a million dollars in 20 annual installments so Bronson has some time to learn.
Did the money really spoil his marriage?
"Well, I think money had a great deal to do with it. There was a little bit on both sides, problems. But before, when we didn't have money, my 'ex' was happy and content to do with what we had," Bronson mused.
When Bronson won he had just been laid off from his job in Columbia, Md., as a forklift operator. His umemployment checks were tied up, emergency welfare had not come through and he had to take a bus to the drawing that night.
Now 4 1/2 years later, he said: "I guess I'm happy. Now I've finally grown out of blowin' it. But I was just as happy . . . happier, without any money. Then I didn't have to worry about who my real friends were."
Bronson is remarried now, with a 16-month-old daughter and an older daughter from his wife's first marriage. He said his wife will work with him in the real estate business - "That's what I've always wanted."
He said his big ambition is to buy some land and build a ranch for unwanted children, where they could live and learn a trade.
And despite all the upheaval it has caused in his life, he does not regret for a minute that he won the million. In fact, he buys a lottery ticket each time he comes back to Maryland.
"I claim I'll win again someday," Bronson asserted. "I just know it."
Erika Houser Earhart cannot believe the sad stories she reads about lottery millionaires being hounded by fortune hunters, hated by envious friends.
"It sure hasn't happened to me." said Earhart, who is living happily in Dearborn, Mich., not far from where she grew up.
She was Erika Houser, 35 years old, divorced and working in a Southern Maryland bar when she won her million April 12, 1976. She never set foot back in her old apartment.
Instead, she stayed in a Baltimore hotel, took her 2-year-old daughter on a shopping spree for new clothes, had the movers clear out the apartment and left for Dearborn to be near her parents.
Last year, she married George Earhart, who works for United Airlines ground service, and these days she puts most of her winnings in a trust fund for daughter Danielle's college education.
She often goes back to visit old friends in St. Mary's County, and she said neither she nor they have changed because of her good fortune - "except they feel I should be spending my money on wild things."
The only "wild thing" she bought was a ring with her name spelled out in diamonds. "But it's too big so I'm having it changed into a wishbone." she said with a hint of embarrassment.
Her greatest desire now is to get back to work, maybe at the nearby Ford plant.
"I enjoy being out and meeting people," she said with a laugh. "I'd do anything at the plant, even sweep floors. You know they get $10 an hour for that now."
Paul McNabb, Maryland's first million-dollar winner and for a time the state's best-known doughnut maker, is back making doughnuts again - this time in Nevada.
That, said lottery officials, is all they really know about McNabb these days.
McNabb won the lottery in July 1973 and about a month later quit the Baltimore doughnut shop where he worked. He began making trips to Las Vegas, but returned several times to work briefly in the Baltimore Dunkin Doughnut shop.
"He's making doughnuts again, seven days a week, 12 hours a day," a Maryland lottery official said. "He flatout enjoys workings. The $50,000 a year provided him with one thing in life - security."