MALONE, Wis. — Down a near mile-long driveway, past farm fields overflowing with hay, corn and beans, there is a magical place along Lake Winnebago's eastern shore, where hundreds of children come to ride horses, play games, paint pictures and spend time in the great outdoors.
It's called Camp Winnegator, a local day camp that runs four or five weeks every summer, primarily catering to kids from in and around Fond du Lac. In fact, knowledge of the camp passes mostly by word of mouth, from one family to the next.
And, yet, this camp is special, not just because of how it helps kids disconnect from cell phones and video games, gets them to splash around in cool lake water and explore trails on horseback, but also because of the joy it brings to the man who helped create it all.
His name is Les Robins.
Yes, that Les Robins. The former junior high school teacher from Fond du Lac who in July 1993 was thrust from obscurity into the national spotlight when he won a $111 million Powerball jackpot, a record at the time.
For the past nine years, Robins, through a family foundation, has overseen the camp on 226 acres he purchased with a portion of his lottery winnings.
The camp near his waterfront home includes riding stables, a gym and pool, miniature golf course and enough powered water toys to keep campers ages 6 to 16 afloat on the lake.
The camp's name, Winnegator, combines two of his loves: Lake Winnebago and the University of Florida Gators.
It harkens back to his own childhood in Florida, of going to camp, and later becoming a camp counselor.
"I just hated to see kids not doing the kind of things we did growing up - playing soccer, softball, hanging out," Robins said during a telephone interview.
Now 46, Robins keeps a low profile, often tooling around his property in a 13-year-old Jeep Grand Cherokee. On Friday nights, when weekly camp sessions end, he usually takes a place in the back of the gym, watching as kids, their parents and counselors eat dinner.
When the summer season concluded Friday, Robins was recovering from an ankle injury and unable to attend the last dinner.
But the parents whose kids attended the camp certainly appreciated Robins' efforts.
"I would hope that if I was in his situation, I'd do something to give back to the community," said Jake Kraus, whose daughters Kayla, 8, and Kirsten, 5, attended the camp. "It's great what Les has done."
This may not be the life Robins had planned, but it's the life he now lives.
In many ways, he has beaten the odds, not just by winning the lottery, but by not squandering the fortune. History is replete with lottery winners turned losers, people who run through the cash and end up in bankruptcy or misery.
Robins' advice for future winners: Put a portion of the cash into an irrevocable trust for up to three years.
"Let time tell them what they really want to do with it," he said.
On July 7, 1993, Robins helped put the "Miracle" in Fond du Lac's famed "Miracle Mile," the strip of grocery and convenience stores that sold a string of big-money winning lottery tickets.
About four hours before the drawing, Robins ran an errand at a local Sentry store for his then-fiancee Colleen DeVries. He purchased a lottery ticket with the numbers 4, 8, 19, 28, 41 and Powerball 30. The odds of being the sole winner were around 1 in 54.9 million.
He watched the drawing, wrote down the numbers, and when the Powerball 30 came up, joked that he had won a buck.
"When I put the numbers in order, I was a little stunned," he said.
He had them all.
"It definitely changed my life," he said. "Obviously, it changed in both positive and negative ways."
Asked to elaborate, he quoted a fragment from Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," the line, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way."
"You never know where you're headed," he said. "You can try to plan it out all you want, but time takes you where you don't have a choice."
Robins went to court to legally divide the prize money with DeVries. They never married.
Robins later married another woman and built his dream home, along with the riding complex by the lake. The marriage ended in divorce.
That's when Robins decided to open the camp. He runs the camp with the help of Jill Wagner, Jerry Engle and a staff of well-trained counselors. Wagner's husband helped build Robins' home. Engle met Robins on a landscape job.
"He wants to give back to the kids; get the kids back to basics," Wagner said.
A week's tuition at the camp costs $250.
"It's not a money-maker (for Robins)," Wagner said.
But it helps Robins do what he always intended - teach children. He no longer works in a classroom. In recent years, he has handled volunteer basketball coaching assignments in Wisconsin and his native Florida.
"I basically consider myself a mentor to kids in any way I can be, whether it's in the classroom, their personal lives or on the basketball court," he said.
He'll soon go through another great life change, as big as winning a lottery. He fell in love with a third-grade schoolteacher from Florida. In a few weeks, they'll marry.
"We really don't know where we're going to live yet," he said. "She's very supportive of me. She knows how much I love kids with the camp and the coaching."
(Click for full-size; opens in new window)The logo for Camp Winnegator comes from a combination of Lake Winnebago's name and owner Les Robins' alma mater, the University of Florida Gators. The camp was founded by Robins, the former Fond du Lac middle school teacher who won a $111 million Powerball jackpot 16 years ago. The day camp for kids ages 6-16 is on his property, where campers use the lakefront.
Thanks to duce for the tip.