It has the makings of a Hollywood script: A young rancher struggling to eke out a living in one of the poorest corners of the nation claims one of the biggest undivided jackpots in U.S. lottery history — $232 million — after buying the ticket in a town called Winner.
Neal Wanless, wearing a black cowboy hat and a huge grin, accepted his giant-sized Powerball check at a ceremony Friday.
Wanless, who is 23, single and lives with his mother and father on the family's 320-acre ranch near Mission, said he's going to buy himself a bigger spread, repay the kindness other townspeople have shown his family and spend his newfound fortune wisely.
"I want to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with this great fortune. I will not squander it," he said.
Wanless bought $15 worth of tickets to the May 27 30-state drawing at a convenience store in Winner during a trip to buy livestock feed. He will take home a lump sum of $88.5 million after taxes are deducted — an astonishing fortune, even more so in rural Todd County, the nation's seventh-poorest county in 2007, according to the Census Bureau.
Arlen Wanless, the winner's father, has been buying and selling scrap metal to make a living in recent years, but his fortunes dropped with the price of iron, said Dan Clark, an auctioneer from Winner and a friend of more than two decades.
'Real meager means'
Dave Assman, who owns farmland next to the Wanless ranch, said he is happy they won't have to worry about money any more. "They've been real short on finances for a long time," Assman said. "They are from real meager means, I guess you'd say."
"I hope they enjoy their money," said county assessor Cathy Vrbka, a family friend. "They work hard, backbreaking hard work."
Neal Wanless' winnings are certainly enough to set him and his family up for life, but past lottery winners have burned through vast fortunes in spectacular fashion or found that they were better off before they struck it rich.
Evelyn Marie Adams won the New Jersey lottery twice in the mid-1980s but still managed to lose the entire $5.4 million.
And there's West Virginia's Jack Whittaker, who won $315 million on Dec. 25, 2002, and five years later was blaming the money for causing his granddaughter's fatal drug overdose, his divorce, his inability to trust and hundreds of lawsuits filed against him.
"I don't have any friends," he told The Associated Press in 2007. "Every friend that I've had, practically, has wanted to borrow money or something and of course, once they borrow money from you, you can't be friends anymore."
'They've lost their peers'
Susan Bradley, whose company in Palm Beach, Florida, the Sudden Money Institute, provides financial planning to the abruptly wealthy, said it's a good sign that Wanless took his time to come forward.
"No opportunity to buy or invest in all that is going to go away, she said. "They have plenty of time."
But she said Wanless will likely experience the same sense of isolation that many other large jackpot winners do.
"They've lost their peers. They are substantially different from everyone that they know," she said.
Bradley said lottery winners should make sure they have enough money to live a modest lifestyle and take a year or two before deciding to buy real estate or make risky purchases. It's important that the winners communicate that strategy to others hoping to direct their financial planning, she said.