The gilded doors of the Biltmore Hotel’s Corinthian Room opened grandly, the television camera lights beamed and Tom Tehee faced the world for the first time Friday as the biggest single winner in California Lottery history.
The jackpot was $45.3 million--after taxes, that’s $4,964 a day, $207 an hour for two decades.
He was an overnight millionaire, but he looked more like a condemned man facing a firing squad.
The limelight is not exactly home to Tehee, a 34-year-old security dispatcher from Upland, who squirmed in his best blue suit as a wall of reporters spit out questions in the latest rat-race-to-riches lottery success story.
“How do you feel winning all that dough?” someone asked.
“Nervous as can be” Tehee said dryly, apparently more smitten by the TV cameras than the $1.8-million check he will receive annually for the next 20 years.
“What are you going to do with it all?”
“I have no idea.”
Never mind kicking up his heels, Tehee scarcely managed a smile as his wife, Kathy, chattered about a new house, travel abroad and a possible Ivy League education for their 20-month-old son, Justin.
Justin, dressed for the occasion in a black velvet tuxedo and red satin bow tie, clapped his hands wildly and tried to take a bite out of the podium microphone. But his father stood, partly paralyzed, seemingly in shock, promising to take care of his parents and in-laws for the rest of their lives.
Tehee didn’t think he was buying all this attention when he walked into the Cork and Can liquor store in Ontario at 9:45 Wednesday morning and spent $5 on a Quick Pick ticket. The lady ahead of him had just purchased $100 in tickets. (Had she purchased $105, lottery officials remarked, this would be a different story.)
The next day, it was announced that someone from Ontario had won the jackpot but no one had stepped forward to claim it. Tehee, who works the night shift, was asleep Thursday when the news broke.
He stopped into a Downey liquor store Thursday afternoon to buy a Diet Pepsi. Kathy Tehee waited in the truck with the baby while her husband checked the numbers matter-of-factly. Then he checked them again. Then he ran out to the truck.
“Oh my God,” he told his wife. “Look . . . look!”
Neither of them believed their eyes, so they went back inside and let the store clerk check. The only thing Tehee had ever won in his life was when he hit the lottery for $86 last month.
“I was ecstatic,” he said flatly.
Tehee’s new title as biggest single lottery winner supplants Sherman Oaks accountant Ralph Laird, whose 10-number computerized strategy won $27.58 million last summer.
The victory was pretty heady for lottery officials as well, who said sales had been slacking until they came up with bigger jackpots to entice players. According to Ulysses Carter, manager of the lottery’s Whittier office, $24.9 million was spent this week by people hoping to do what Tehee did.
A blue limousine, courtesy of lottery administrators, arrived Friday to drive the Tehee family to the unveiling at the downtown Biltmore. A white limo, courtesy of Tom Tehee, carried several family members and friends, who acted as sort of an entourage as Tehee took his place in history.
He wouldn’t even consider quitting his job, which, along with his wife’s income as a police dispatcher, brings in about $50,000 a year.
He might consider buying a new truck, however.
“I see no reason to quit, no reason at all,” he said bluntly, scurrying away from the podium and retreating to an empty banquet room with his family and friends.
“No press!” was all Tom Tehee was heard to say as the doors to the Roman Room slammed shut.
“Yeah, he’s stoical all right,” lottery official Carter said. “The last guy who did this said $25 million wasn’t going to change him. He was driving an old Ford at the time. When he came to pick up his first check, he was in a gold Mercedes with all the trimmings.
“A couple of weeks later he came to the office to ask a question. He pulled up in a new Corvette.”