Millions of people play the lottery. Some may have a lucky strike and win a couple dollars, or even a couple hundred dollars. But just a handful of scratch-off gamers hit that big prize, and Nancy Guiher can include herself among them.
Guiher was recently the winner of the $1,000 a week for life game sponsored by the Pennsylvania Lottery.
She is only the 74th person to win this prize since its inception in July 1995.
Last Friday, a check presentation ceremony was held for Guiher at the Saltsburg Shop 'n Save, where she purchased the winning ticket.
Representatives from the Pennsylvania Lottery were there, and Shop 'n Save employees surprised Guiher with a congratulatory cake. Guiher was accompanied by her family: husband Denny, daughters Becky Pizer and Kathy Muir, son-in-law Scott Muir and her four grandchildren.
"This, to me, it's unreal," Guiher remarked. "I didn't really believe it until I saw the check."
According to Donna Spallone, manager of the Saltsburg Shop 'n Save, the prize Guiher won was the largest to ever come out of the store.
"We had someone win $100,000 two or three years ago," she said.
It was around Halloween time, she recalled, because the prize was won on a Halloween scratch-off.
The Shop 'n Save store will also receive a $5,000 bonus for selling the winning ticket.
Spallone said she's not sure what plans owner Gary Wheatley has for the bonus, but she thinks the store employees might have an especially nice Christmas party this year.
"He usually springs for one, but maybe this year's will be a little extra special," she said.
According to the Pennsylvania Lottery, a person's odds of winning the Win for Life top prize is 1 in 4.8 million. The overall odds of winning any prize on that scratch-off are 1 in 4.7.
"I've been playing this game since its inception," in 1995, Guiher said. "I've played the lottery ever since it started," 33 years ago. A friend, Janice Thomas, who she's known since high school, introduced her to the inexpensive instant game.
It was early in the morning on Oct. 23 that Guiher came to the Saltsburg Shop 'n Save to do her grocery shopping.
On her way out the store, she stopped at the automatic lottery ticket machine that sits at the front. "I almost didn't play it," she said. "And I was going to play the Ruby Reds."
Guiher said she plays every day, except when she's on vacation, "sometimes one ticket, sometimes five," she said.
She added that she mostly plays her winnings, meaning if she wins money on a ticket, she uses those winnings to purchase more tickets.
Guiher had cashed in $40 worth of ticket winnings that morning, though, and used it to buy her groceries. She used her change to purchase lottery tickets from the machine on her way out the door.
She went home and sat down on the couch to scratch off her ticket while her husband, Denny, sat at the computer. The ticket, she explained, has four different games on it. She scratched off the first game--nothing. On the second game, she uncovered three keystone symbols, meaning she would win the prize shown under a section she hadn't yet scratched off. She waited, uncovering the bottom two games, then went back up to Game No. 2 to scratch off the prize.
It said, "Life" and underneath, in small letters, "$1,000 a week."
"I jumped up and yelled, 'Oh, my God, I just retired!'" Guiher recalled. "My husband said, 'Yeah, right. What, did you win $1,000?' 'No,' I said, '$1,000 a week for life!'"
Guiher then called down to the store to validate the ticket, "Because I had never seen one before," she said. "And they verified that it was."
"I was just ecstatic," she remarked. "My husband thought I was going to have a heart attack.
"I can't even begin to describe the feeling. You can sit and say how you react, how you'd feel, but until ithappens, you never really know."
In a small town like Saltsburg, good news travels fast.
"All of Saltsburg knew 20 minutes after is happened," Guiher laughed. "Probably within two hours, the whole town knew. It's a small town. You can't keep a secret."
Guiher's four grandchildren--Bobby, 9, Carrie, 7, Hannah, 2, and Michael, 1--may have a jollier holiday this year because of Grandma's winnings, at least, "They seem to think so," she laughed.
She plans to invest the bulk of the money, but said she may splurge for a Hawaiian vacation.
"I'm just going to retire a little sooner than I planned," Guiher said. She had considered retirement in about five years, but now, she thinks it might be more like a year and a half.
Guiher will receive a check for $52,000 every year for 20 years, minus 25 percent federal withholding.
As of Nov. 21, two top prizes remain in the current Win for Life instant game.
Spallone said she hasn't observed a large increase in lottery ticket purchases since Guiher's win, but several buyers joked with store employees, saying, "Give me one of the tickets you gave to Nancy," Spallone said.
Right now, the Christmas instant games are selling well, she added.
Guiher will "absolutely" continue to play, she said, "every day, as long as I can."
And anyone lottery player who thinks that the big jackpot is never within reach, needs only to look to Guiher as an example that it really can happen to anybody.
Said Guiher, "I wish anybody who plays the lottery the best of luck."