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This one’s a real head-scratcher

You know the saying, "one man's junk is another man's treasure." It's an axiom that Dennis Morse and nearly 900 other people around the U.S. apparently take to heart.
Dennis Morse of South Mills, N.C., sifts through some of his thousands of scratched lottery tickets on April 4 in Elizabeth City.
Dennis Morse of South Mills, N.C., sifts through some of his thousands of scratched lottery tickets on April 4 in Elizabeth City.Justin Falls / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

You know the saying, "one man's junk is another man's treasure." It's an axiom that Dennis Morse and nearly 900 other people around the U.S. apparently take to heart.

Morse is a collector. He collects a lot of things but is most passionate about one thing in particular: used scratch-off lottery tickets.

Like his fellow collectors, the 67-year-old retired U.S. Navy diver from South Mills calls himself a "lotologist." It's a handle adopted by the many ticket collectors who might be considered the world's experts on scratch-off lottery tickets.

So what's the attraction? For Morse, it's the thrill of collecting and the aesthetic value of each ticket. Some, like the Alaskan tickets, depict beautiful landscapes and wildlife. But, he adds, there's no real rhyme or reason for why anyone collects anything.

Morse lives with his wife, Corky — she lovingly refers to the lottery ticket collectors as "800 or so weirdos" — in a house he constructed. Inside the house, room after room is filled with Morse's collections.

He has videotape collections, thousands of books all stacked and piled in his living room and a Pokemon toy collection from Burger King.

‘At first we lied’
"You had to go eat a kids meal," Morse said. "At first we lied and said they were for a grandchild, but after a while they would catch on."

The living room is filled with his various collections, but only one room, in the back of the house, is dedicated to lottery tickets.

In that room Morse has more than 250,000 lottery tickets, none of which is worth the paper they were printed on. Although he has amassed so many tickets, his actual collection consists of about 30,000 tickets. The remainder of the tickets are duplicates he keeps for trading with other members of the Global Lottery Collector's Society.

Morse started collecting things when he was boy, growing up in Chicago. He said on his one-plus-mile walk home from school each day, he would pass through alleyways and find things. If Morse couldn't haul his find in his arms, he would return later with his wagon.

Morse said those things he collected as a child were typically mechanical in nature. He enjoyed tinkering with them and trying to breathe new life into objects such as an old 1940s radio or bicycle breaks.

Morse still has a few things around the house that he seems to tinker with, like 50 different, outdated computers. But the bulk of his time as a collector — an estimated 15 hours a week — is spent with his lottery tickets.

Collector No. 317
In April 1992 Morse said he read about lottery ticket collectors in a book. He contacted the people involved and became number 317 on a list of national collectors.

Morse said other than postage there's no money involved. He said the way you get started is contact the other collectors, they send you used lottery tickets and you go from there.

"These are all discarded (tickets)," he said. "There are no winning scratch tickets."

Some collectors do collect and trade unused tickets. According to one lotologist Web site, many collectors view unscratched tickets as more desirable because no one knows whether or not it was the $10,000 instant winner.

Morse, on the other hand, said he, along with many other collectors, don't bother with unscratched tickets. They view those other collectors as a bit foolish since they are potentially spending money — depending the state tickets can cost as little as $1 to as much as $30 — they will never recoup. So discarded tickets are the way to go, he said.

"We collect them out of garbage cans, essentially," Morse said.

Well, not exactly. Although there may be the odd occasion to burrow through a garbage can, Morse has a network of stores set up where he can collect the discarded tickets once a week or so. Merchants, he said, will collect used tickets left behind by the unlucky purchaser and stash them in a box, awaiting Morse's arrival.

"I have wonderful people at the nicest gas station in Elizabeth City. The Southgate Shell takes the tickets left over and they put them in a box for me," Morse said.

Morse takes those tickets home and sorts them. As far as regional tickets are concerned, he has traditionally been the keeper of Virginia and Maryland lottery tickets, and now North Carolina. And that's important to the network of collectors.

Nationally there are 42 states plus Washington, D.C., with lotteries. Morse said there are collectors in all but seven of those states. So collectors in those states, or who live nearby, are responsible for keeping up with new tickets. And that can be a chore with as many as 300 new tickets being introduced every month.

The compiler
The collectors keep a copy of a new ticket for themselves then catalog duplicates for trading later. They also send one ticket to a man they all call the "compiler."

The compiler is an Indiana man who has amassed the largest ticket collection in the country. Out of 40,000 possible lottery tickets to date, the compiler has all but seven, according to Morse. When collectors in various states pull in the newest tickets and send them to the compiler, he's able to catalog them and include them in the group's newsletter, which he produces.

Because there is no monetary value attached to the used tickets and the collections, collectors freely trade. They publish their want list in a monthly newsletter, or contact specific members. The members who have the desired ticket pass them forward.

If fellow lotologists want a specific ticket, they typically know which collector has the tickets and make contact.

"I'm the go-to guy in Virginia, Maryland and now North Carolina," Morse said.

When the North Carolina lottery went live over a week ago, Morse was standing by. He knew that he had a new collector's book to fill and fellow collectors would be clamoring for copies of the first tickets in the state's history.

First off the rolls
While Morse typically won't spend a dollar for a ticket, he made an exception on that first day. In fact, he managed to purchase the first tickets off the rolls at two area stores.

Those tickets will go into his personal collection. They're not valuable by any stretch of the imagination — they weren't winning tickets either. But they are numbered 0-4. He purchased the first tickets sold at Jones Brothers Market and the South Mills Supermarket.

As the state's lottery matures, Morse hopes to see more appealing tickets, like the ones from Alaska, for instance. He'll also be keeping tabs on the new tickets, stockpiling for current and future collectors.

It is, after all, his hobby and while he repeated time and again that there's no monetary value to the collection, there's personal value and the time spent means something to the retired Navy diver.

"People have wants and likes," Morse said. "Mine are lottery tickets. People like to collect things."