When Mike Wittkowski won $40 million in the Illinois Lottery two decades ago, the media reported worldwide on what was called the largest prize ever won by one person in North America.
Strangers wrote from as far as Poland and Italy, begging him to send some of his winnings their way.
Since then, Wittkowski has maintained a low profile. For years, he and his wife even kept the windfall secret from their children. Their eldest son, Bryan, now 17, learned of the family fortune when he was in second grade.
"One of the kids said, 'Your dad won the lottery,' " said Wittkowski, 48. "My kid didn't know what it meant, and he didn't know what to say to the guy. The kid said, 'Your dad's a millionaire.' . . . Then we had to explain some of what happened."
After Wittkowski won on Sept. 1, 1984, he divided the money equally with his father, brother and sister. He decided to take his share in 20 annual installments, retired at age 28 and lives off investments with his wife, Fran, in Inverness, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago.
Although the winnings liberated the couple from worrying about college payments, they still coach and volunteer at schools. Wearing the same full mustache he sported 20 years ago, Wittkowski drinks Miller Lite, says he has not traveled abroad since the year after he won the money and drives a two-year-old Chevy Tahoe.
True, he did buy a couple of hard-luck racehorses and dump a little money into a restaurant that turned out to be a sinkhole. But the couple has invested carefully so they will not ever have to work, they say, and they have raised their children in a middle-class environment.
"We're just very normal," Fran Wittkowski said. "I want my kids to know that."
In inflation-adjusted dollars, the $40 million of 1984 would equal about $72 million today. Lottery payoffs also have swelled with multistate jackpots, and the biggest win on record is a $363 million Big Game payout in 2000, the Illinois Lottery reports.
But in 1984, the win "spawned near hysteria in Illinois for two weeks," the Chicago Tribune reported then. When word broke that a Chicago bachelor was the sole winner, teenage girls showed up to gaze at his Albany Park home. Neighbors joked that Wittkowski might buy them new lawn mowers.
"He's not going to change much," a friend predicted. "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."
Stories such as the Wittkowskis' tend to spur ticket purchases, but the chances of winning remain infinitesimal, said Brother Donald J. Kelly, a statistics professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
The chance of winning the New York Lottery, for example, is equal to that of randomly grabbing a specific dime from a stack 22.6 miles high.
"That's a great opening argument why not to play the lottery," Kelly said. "The chances are almost nil."
Illinois Lottery spokesman Courtney Hill said most people buy just for the enjoyment of taking a chance on winning. "The main thing with the lottery is it's a form of entertainment," he said.
"People play to have fun. And that's the fun of it -- that chance to win money."
In 1984, Wittkowski had a job at a printing company. The week the lottery reached $40 million, he, his brother and his sister were vacationing in the Chippewa Flowage in Wisconsin with his girlfriend, Fran Pappas.
That week, two life-changing events happened: He called his father in Chicago and asked him to pick up a few lottery tickets. And he asked Fran to marry him.
They like to point out that she agreed to marry him before he was rich.
"If I had wanted to marry someone for their money," she said recently, "I wouldn't have said yes, because he wasn't exactly wealthy to begin with."
They now have three boys: Bryan, Steven, 14, and Kevin, 12.
When the couple returned from Wisconsin, the whole family watched the drawing on TV. Wittkowski, his brother, his sister and his father had agreed to split the money if they ever won, and Wittkowski had the Illinois Lottery divide the payments.
(His father has since died, and Wittkowski said his brother and sister did not want to be interviewed for this story. Wittkowski also declined a request to be photographed for this story.) It took a while for the state to agree to divide the winnings, and Wittkowski refused to cash the first check until the deal was worked out.
"Meanwhile, there were rumors out there that I wouldn't take the check," he said. "Rumors out there that I was dead. . . . That I ran away with my ex-wife. All this crazy stuff floating around."
There were a few ugly moments at first, such as a bomb threat called in after he won the money.
Occasionally he runs into someone in a bar who recognizes him and wants him to buy the house a round. He has been known to do this, but it does not put one in a generous mood to have someone start a conversation by yelling, "Hey, big shot."
Oddly, strangers sometimes seem to think they deserve a share of lottery winnings.
"You get letters asking for specific amounts," Wittkowski said. "And I'm telling you: hundreds of thousands of dollars. 'If I just had $85,000 to get myself started in a business, boy it would just be great.' Stuff like that. I had a lady who wrote me a 21-page typed letter and said she was down to her last $20, but she sent it to me registered mail. It cost her $19 just to send the letter."
For lottery winners, meeting people can become awkward. Just how do you bring up the fact that you do not have to work?
But Sharon Serafin, a friend of the Wittkowskis, said they are regular people who bowl in a local league and volunteer for community activities.
Serafin and her husband have vacationed with the Wittkowskis in Wisconsin, where everyone walks to a bar to buy frozen pizza and beer.
"Mike drives the carpools, and Fran does the PTA," she said. "Mike helps coach baseball, and he coached our two boys this year in Inverness Park District basketball. They're always giving their time to everybody, not just their own kids."
But wealth has its advantages, among them a benefit some hard-working parents might envy: time with the children.
"The best thing about it is I'm up in the morning when the boys leave to go to school," Wittkowski said. "And I'm there when they get home from school. So I know what's going on at school. A lot of dads miss that kind of stuff."