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$315M Lottery Winner Shuns Attention

December 24, 2003

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. (AP) _ The letters never stop. Requests, pleas, hard-luck stories, tales to break your heart: thousands of them, enough to fill hip-high filing cabinets that line three conference-room walls in Andrew ``Jack″ Whittaker’s new office.

They come by the dozens, day after day, though it has been a year since Whittaker won the richest undivided lottery jackpot in U.S. history _ $314.9 million, payable in an after-tax lump sum of $113 million _ in a Christmas Day drawing.

``I can’t even read them,″ the 56-year-old Whittaker said. ``I wouldn’t have any money left if I did.″

The visitors keep coming, too. Two to four a day _ from as far away as Washington and Idaho _ bringing tales of woe to the Scott Depot house Whittaker still owns, ringing the bell still answered by his wife, Jewell.

Tell the world you have $113 million, and that you’re willing to give part of it away, and the world will beat a path to your door.

``If I had to do it all over, I’d be more secluded about it,″ said Whittaker, a sewer and water contractor who built a multimillion-dollar business well before he won the jackpot. ``I’d do the same things, but I’d be a little more quiet.″

After winning the Powerball jackpot, Whittaker brought his wife, daughter and granddaughter to a news conference, then did a round of national interviews in which he said he would donate a tenth of his winnings to his church and start a foundation to help poor West Virginians.

In many ways Whittaker is the same unpretentious, no-nonsense, cowboy-hat-wearing guy he was before he hit the jackpot. But his natural openness is tempered by a certain wariness. Security guards now watch his home and office, and last week an assistant videotaped and audiotaped an interview in which he said he regretted the toll fame has taken on his family.

Whittaker said he and his daughter, Ginger, were used to dealing with the public and so have not been traumatized by the attention. (``I’m not bashful; I can tell people where to go but fast.″)

But his wife and his granddaughter, Brandi, are another story.

``There should be a book to tell you how to handle it when people get thrown into the limelight,″ he said. ``My wife swears she’s going to write it. People aggravate her to death asking for money.″

Brandi has lost almost all of her friends, Whittaker said. ``They want her for her money and not for her good personality,″ he said. ``She’s the most bitter 16-year-old I know. She doesn’t communicate with almost anybody but me. I’m working on it, though.″

Lottery winners often struggle to handle newfound wealth and fame, and many become tied up in lawsuits or estranged from family and friends. One study claimed that instant millionaires have about the same level of happiness as recent accident victims.

For his part, Whittaker has brought some unwanted attention upon himself.

During a late-night July foray to a West Virginia strip club, Whittaker opened a briefcase filled with $545,000 in cash and cashier’s checks in front of a club employee. Whittaker was soon drugged, and the briefcase was stolen, police said.

The money was recovered, and two club employees were arrested. But the incident put a spotlight on Whittaker’s habits, which police said included frequent strip-club visits and high-stakes gambling at a dog track and casino.

Whittaker declined to talk about the incident or other parts of his life he deemed private. He said he does not go to the track much these days since he dislikes the attention. ``I could have a ski mask on and they’d still recognize me,″ he said.

Unlike other lottery winners, Whittaker was used to handling big money before he hit the jackpot. He said he has spent about $45 million in the past year, much of it buying dozens of properties for industrial development in West Virginia and Ohio. ``I haven’t bought nothing that’s not worth more than what I paid for it,″ he said.

His contracting company has expanded from $15 million in annual contracts to $35 million, and its work force has gone from around 115 employees to 370 at peak construction season, he said.

About $14 million has been spent on charity work, almost half of it through the Jack Whittaker Foundation, he said. The three-employee foundation helps West Virginians find jobs, buy food or get an education. Whittaker said the foundation has probably helped about 900 families, many of whom were checked out by private investigators first.

He has also donated more than $7 million to three Church of God pastors in West Virginia and California.

One goal he has not achieved: spending more time with his family. The man who used to work 14-hour days is busier than ever. ``I was hoping I could start taking naps in the afternoon,″ Whittaker said, ``but that hasn’t happened yet.″

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