What to do with a piece of paper worth $258 million?
That was the immediate question that confronted Helen and Harold Lerner last Saturday morning after they checked the lottery numbers in the local newspaper and found that they had bought the winning ticket in the Sept. 16 drawing of the Mega Millions jackpot.
First they hugged and kissed. Then they checked the ticket "about 500 times," Mr. Lerner said, "and all of a sudden we were in a dreamland." They wrapped the ticket in cellophane, put it in a lockbox and hid it in the rear of Mrs. Lerner's lingerie drawer.
"It was a choice between my underwear drawer and her lingerie drawer," Mr. Lerner said. "So that choice was simple," he added at a news conference held here at Seton Hall University, Mrs. Lerner's alma mater, where lottery officials announced that they had won.
After consulting a lawyer, the Lerners contacted the New Jersey Lottery on Monday to claim the jackpot, the largest in New Jersey history and the fifth largest in the United States. The odds of selecting the winning numbers - 5, 16, 41, 46, 50 and the Gold Mega Ball No. 1 - were about 175 million-to-one, according to lottery officials.
The Lerners, who have two adult children, have lived in Rutherford for the last 12 years. Mr. Lerner, 60, worked as a self-employed salesman of kitchenware, and Mrs. Lerner, 51, was a pharmaceutical sales representative. They say they are now retiring.
Mrs. Lerner explained on Friday that she only played the lottery when the jackpot hit $100 million. So on Sept. 15, when the lottery was $250 million, she walked into the Leprechaun II store on Park Avenue in Rutherford and paid $10 for 10 quick-pick tickets.
When a friend called them Saturday morning to say the winning ticket had been bought in Rutherford, she checked the ticket and then looked at her husband. "Honey," Mr. Lerner recalled his wife saying, "I think we're millionaires."
They spent the next two days listening to friends and neighbors speculating about who might have won. "We were milling around trying to be really cool about this, and we were thinking, we know it's us," Mr. Lerner said.
Mrs. Lerner said she planned to donate money to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina and might buy a luxury car. Mr. Lerner said he hoped to buy an old Checker cab with jump seats in the back, a reminder of his days growing up in Brooklyn. "It will be a free ride for everyone," he said.
Mrs. Lerner, who bought the ticket, said she and her husband were splitting the money 50-50. Family, friends and Seton Hall University will be beneficiaries of their good fortune, she added.
"I know that God is good," said Seton Hall's president, Msgr. Robert Sheeran, who was on hand for the announcement. "Sometimes God is very very good."
Since the Lerners chose to receive cash rather than annual installments over 26 years, they will receive $156,141,600. Then there is the matter of the 25 percent federal withholding tax.
In the hours after the announcement, a uniformed police officer stood guard in front of the couple's modest two-story brick house. Neighbors declined to comment on the Lerners' luck.
Before Friday, the Lerners said all they had ever won was a pair of Yankees' tickets and a frozen turkey from a grocery store.
"This is much better," Mrs. Lerner said.