Wheel of Fortune : Did Nice Things Happen to Big Spinners? You Bet

Times Staff Writer

The TV commercial aims directly at the worker's dream:

A couple--just plain folks--are in front of their unpretentious house telling us about winning big in the California State Lottery. It hasn't changed their lives, they say. They have the same friends, do the same things, feel pretty much like the same people. Oh, they did add onto the house, they say, and the camera dollies out to reveal a mansion in the background.

Is that really how it works?

Anthony ("Call me Tony") Columbus said sure, he'd be glad to talk about winning the lottery. It'd have to be after he gets back from Australia, and then he may be heading to Las Vegas right after that. But sure, call the first of the month. Glad to talk to you.

The way to Tony's is up the hill from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Laguna Niguel, past the guard at the sturdy electric gate and into Monarch Beach. Here the new houses range from expensive to very, very expensive.

Tony, tipped by the guard that someone was coming, was waiting behind his curb-side fence. He didn't look quite like the Anthony Columbus who was in the newspapers nearly two years ago. That photo showed a somewhat stouter man in a plaid shirt and horn-rimmed glasses who had just won a Big Spin grand prize of $3.26 million. He looked like a 46-year-old liquor store clerk. He was a 46-year-old liquor store clerk.

This Tony was more trim. His hair looked styled. His glasses were gone, and so were some of the extra pounds. His clothes were the kind of Southern California casual that goes well in nice hotels.

"Got my teeth all fixed, that's another thing I had done," Columbus said, smiling evenly. "I fixed myself up a little bit."

Columbus led the way to the patio. "Prime location," he said. "I love that water. You can see it from right here. See it out there? No fog--well, there's fog, but no smog. You can see Catalina and everything else when it's clear out there.

"Lawyers, dentists, chiropractors and doctors all around me here. All they got here is an old liquor clerk." He laughed.

He led the way into the house and introduced his second wife, Dorothy, who was stuffing a turkey in the kitchen. She had been one of his regular customers at the liquor store, and after he won the money, they were married, he said. She continued stuffing, and he walked into the living room to talk about winning big.

He was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., lived for a while in Chicago, then came to Southern California 22 years ago, he said. In the East he had been a roofer, but in California he was a liquor store clerk in South Gate, Norwalk, Downey and Inglewood. Always in someone else's store.

"Didn't have that kind of money at the time. I could own one now, if I wanted to. I just don't wanna do that any more. Robberies and all that. I was robbed about five different times. Had guns stuck in my face and everything else. Not ever shot at. Threatened at, but never shot."

Working "53, maybe 54 hours a week" and making, at best, "Jeez, I guess about 20 grand, and that's workin' hard ," Columbus yearned for something better. "You know what you gotta pay in rent. You couldn't even get a decent car. You can't do anything. Nothin'. And you pray every day you go to work that nothin' will happen to you.

"I told myself: If California ever gets a lottery--well, I like to gamble, you know, and I can't go to Vegas all the time. I play the horses. I've done very well in my life gambling. But in this, I don't know, I just had an intuition. I used to buy 10, 15 dollars of tickets every day. It was right there" in the liquor store.

"And you know how you think you got a streak goin'? So one day I kept buying tickets and I kept winning money, money--$2, $5, $10 tickets. Then I got a $100 ticket." That qualified him for the pool from which Big Spin contestants were drawn--a chance for the big money. "And I said, 'I'm gonna do something, I can feel it.' "

He felt it so strongly, he said, that he quit his job three weeks before he spun the wheel. "This is the God's truth: I dreamt four days before I went to Sacramento that I won the jackpot. I seen Geoff Edwards (the Big Spin host) right here in front of my face saying, 'You just won, Tony! You just won the jackpot!' Didn't I tell you that, Babe?"

From the kitchen: "Yeah, he did."

"I never had such a strong feeling in my life for anything like I had for this. I knew I was good for $10,000 (the minimum prize), right? I didn't care one way or the other. I wanted to get out of there (the liquor store). I just wanted to get out of there.

"What got me mad, see, he (the boss) didn't want to give me any time off, right? And then he got the attitude of 'you're not gonna win nothin', stay right here, you're not gonna win nothin'. ' I said, 'Hey, I'm takin' a week off or somethin' before I go.' And he said, 'No, you can't have it, you're not gonna get paid for it.' So I said, 'Well, I'll take three weeks off then.' "

And he quit.

Then came the actual spin, and Columbus' confidence, while not failing, quivered a bit. "I spun that wheel. I kept talking to it. I could feel it. My whole future was there, you know? No job, no nothin'. I know I'm gonna get 10 grand, but at least gimme a hundred thou so I could have something to play with. And I kept sayin', 'It's gotta be there, it's gotta be there.' "

As the wheel slowed to a stop, the ball fell into the grand-prize slot, then bounced out, then came to rest in the other grand-prize slot, where it remained. Did Geoff Edwards shout what he had shouted in Columbus' dream? "I don't know," Columbus said. "I don't remember what happened after that.

"I couldn't wait to come home, you know? Then I think to myself, Jesus, I don't have the money yet. What if that damned plane goes down? Who's gonna get the money, right? My luck's fine now, but in the air, I don't know nothin' about that. So I wrote a little will. I was so glad to touch down.

"And you know, those guys (his former employers) wanted me to come back to work after I won that. I didn't have to do anything but stand behind the counter, because there were so many people coming to ask about me, you know?"

He returned to work for a few weeks. "People'd come in and say, 'Hey, Tony, gimme five tickets' or 'gimme 10 tickets while you're here.' The touch system. They think you've got something. They had them brushing against me, just goofy things.

"Guys asked for money--rent, to get their car fixed--and 'pay you back when I get my income tax check.' The guys who came to that store who you thought were your friends, well, they're not your friends. They just want that American dollar from you. My friends never bothered me about anything. The people you don't know that well, they're the ones come in there and try to take your money."

Columbus said a check for $130,400 arrived within a week of his winning spin. He will receive identical checks annually through the year 2005.

Has the money changed Tony Columbus?

"Same guy," Columbus said, "just got a better bank account, that's all. Ain't I the same guy, Babe?"

From the kitchen: "Yeah, he is."

"I really am," Columbus said.

"When you win some money, and you don't do anything anymore, and everybody around you is workin', you feel a little guilty. You say, 'Everybody's workin', and look, this guy's going out there to kill himself like I did,' then you feel a little bad about it.

"And then you say to yourself, 'Hey, if he won, he'd be doin' the same thing you're doin', so why not enjoy it?' So that's what I'm going to do."

But, he said, he does get a little bored now and then. "I kinda miss work. I kinda miss people. I go around talking to all the (construction) workers all the time. You gotta talk to somebody. I kinda miss that.

"I'd like to get some job to fool around with. Whatever comes up. No stores. I don't want anybody comin' in, 'Hey, gimme your money--bang, bang.' I don't need that anymore. Maybe a little store, a burger stand or something, just something to fool around with."

What did he do with the money so far?

"Got married. October. Was it the 17th?"

From the kitchen: "Yes."

"I don't know the numbers. Ask me the numbers of the lottery and the tracks and I'll know the numbers."

And he bought a new Chevrolet Corvette. "That cost me 32 grand. It's like a burgundy--they call it a metallic red. I wanted that all my life." There it was in the garage, seeming to glow through the canvas cover. "We wax hell out of it," he said.

"That's the first car I ever bought in my life right out of the showcase window. I mean, I went right on the floor, looked at the car and bought it right there and then. I didn't put a dime down on the car, not a penny. Everybody knew I'd won the Big Spin. They said, 'Just sign right here.'

"I've never gone anywhere before. They never gave me any paid vacation. Or they'd give you a week, but that was it. You coulda worked there for 20 years, that's all you get. Where the hell you gonna go in one week? I couldn't go anywhere. So I made a promise to myself: If I ever get ahead in life, I'm gonna see some of the people of different cultures, which I like."

So far, he has traveled to and seen the people of Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Pennsylvania. Next summer, it will be China and Japan.

And there will always be the occasional pilgrimage to Las Vegas. "I went to Vegas many times before I won this, but now it's more fun. We don't gamble eight hours. I still budget myself up there."

From the kitchen: "He's so conservative."

"I'm the most conservative person you ever want to meet in your life. I learned. I come from a poor family. I learned what you have, take care of it. Take care of what you got. If I got 500, I blow 200 and bring back 300. That's the way I am." By the time the second lottery check arrived, he still had about $65,000 left from the first check, he said.

"That money's gonna last me forever. When I die it's gonna last somebody else forever.

"Yeah, security. It got me a house, got me things I never had before. It took the worry away from me about what I'm going to do tomorrow if I lose my job, you know what I mean? Security, that's what it is. I love it. I wish everybody could spin that wheel and do what I did. Nothin' like it."

The difference between Columbus and Arlie Ragle is not just how much money they won. Ragle, too, won a bundle--$2,325,000 during the Big Spin last May. That's $93,000 annually through the year 2006.

Columbus moved from Downey to an expensive Laguna Niguel ocean view house. Ragle moved from his mobile home in Anaheim to a tract house in Anaheim.

Columbus bought a Corvette. Ragle bought a vacation van.

Columbus' license plate says "LOTTO86." The sign in Ragle's van window says, "I Brake for Bingo."

Ragle, 62, is willing to admit he's set in his ways and his ways are simple.

Both he and his wife worked for an aircraft parts manufacturer--he as supervisor of machinery maintenance, she as a shipping clerk. Together they made a comfortable living, he said. It wasn't enough to build up any savings, not enough to buy a house, but enough to go fishing and bowling and play bingo often enough.

But Ragle, who liked to switch jobs when they got boring, was nearing retirement age.

"That's what really worried me. There was no way I could retire. I had to work until I fell over or as long as they'd let me. Social Security, you're not gonna live on that. I didn't have anything else. I was really concerned, and the older I got, the more concerned I got."

His wife is the gambler of the family, he said. "I'm a lot more conservative. But there was no doubt in my mind--it may sound weird--that I was going to win (in the lottery). I just believed I was, and I don't know why. I just felt I would.

"I'd start off with five (dollars) on Monday. Sometimes you can play all week with that. I'd say $10 at the most. Every week we'd win some twos and fives and tens"--winnings that went to buy more tickets.

Finally came the $100 ticket he could mail in and hope it would be drawn for the Big Spin. Last May while he and Dolly were playing bingo in Los Alamitos--they won $500 that night--the Ragle ticket was drawn.

"I really didn't think about winning the big one," he said. "I felt like I was going to win something sizable, something more than $10,000, but I never really let myself think or dared think about winning the big one."

He won it all.

It happened the first week of the vacation they had already planned, but the Ragles came home instead. "All we did all weekend was sit and look at each other," she said.

"I didn't feel like I wanted to go anywhere," he said. "I just wanted to digest it. I wanted to enjoy the feeling and didn't want anything to interfere with it."

What was the feeling?

Ragle's voice fell to a hush. "Oh, it was great just knowing I didn't have to worry about retirement. I could now retire. And I knew I could help the kids, maybe not the first couple years, but after that definitely. And when we pass away there will be money left over."

The Ragles retired immediately, but Arlie returned months later to fill in temporarily. "I guess mainly I wanted to see how did it feel to work and not have to work."

How does it feel?

"Great. It's a whole new ballgame. Everybody treats me so much different. I don't feel the pressure, because I don't have to worry about pleasing everybody exactly. It's just a good feeling. I haven't changed in my attitude toward people. But I know-- I know--that I don't have to take anything if I don't want to. But their attitude has changed, not mine. They expect you to change."

He said some people seemed to be "a little jealous, maybe." In their place, "I think I might have been a little bit, too. Mostly acquaintances, people you call friends--well, they are friends--but they really expect you to change. They expect you to run in a different crowd and live a lot differently and drift away. Their attitude is just different. We are the same. I like the same people, I like to do the same things."

Convinced that they wanted to return to the family in Ohio, the Ragles drove their van back during the summer. "It was so hot and humid back there we could hardly stand it," Dolly said. "It was terrible. It was the hottest and most humid summer on record. We couldn't have gone at a worse time. And it was dull. " So it was back to California. "It was probably meant to be," she said.

Instead of going back to the family, the Ragles began gathering the family in California. "We got a lot of kids (seven sons and daughters, 13 grandchildren), and they all need help," Arlie said.

They moved out of their mobile home and turned it over to son Tim, 23, and his wife, who had been married about six months. The Ragles also left behind their car and still pay a goodly part of the monthly loan and rent payments. "It's virtually impossible for a kid that age to make ends meet," Arlie said.

The Ragles bought a house with a swimming pool for Dolly ("I love to swim") and four bedrooms "for the kids." The first to arrive were son Brad Scherger, 30, and his wife and two daughters, who are staying until they get established in jobs and build up a cushion in the savings account.

The Ragles bought a washing machine and dryer for the house, but that was all. The furniture they already had was good enough, they said.

The Ragles say they have plans for the next few years. They will be doing a lot of fishing. They will pay their children's and parents' fares to California for visits. Arlie will spend more time with his self-taught oil painting. "I've improved a lot," he said. They will take the van for a tour of the United States.

And when they die, they will have something to leave their family. Arlie said he probably worries about expenses more now than before he became a millionaire.

Dolly said that the night after Arlie spun for his millions, the couple was at the Sacramento airport waiting to return home. She insisted on buying a souvenir sweat shirt at the gift shop. At the cash register, Arlie learned that it cost $40.

"I thought he'd choke," Dolly said.

"My values haven't changed," he explained.

Orange County's other two multimillionaire lottery winners say they would like to keep their lives to themselves.

"You can say we attended the lottery party (for past winners) and enjoyed ourselves or something like that," said the Huntington Beach woman who won $3 million in 1986.

"We're still living in the same house. My life, it hasn't changed. I'd rather just let it die down."

Another Huntington Beach woman, who won $2,151,787 this year, has asked lottery officials not to reveal her whereabouts. "I just don't want my name in the paper," she said. "A lot of my neighbors don't even know about it. I just want to keep it secret."

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