$40 Million Man's payments end

Aug 31, 2004, 8:53 am (8 comments)

Illinois Lottery

For the first time in 20 years, Michael Wittkowski and family won't be receiving their big fat annual check courtesy of the Illinois State Lottery.

The $40 Million Man is on his own again.

Do you remember him? If you were around at the time, who could forget?

His was the first mega-jackpot in Illinois lottery history, the biggest to a single winner anywhere in the nation at the time, earning the then-28-year-old unmarried printer from the Northwest Side a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for several years running.

It was also the first major outbreak of "lotto fever" here, a jackpot big enough to tickle the collective imaginations of the whole country. Everybody had plans for that $40 million.

While the record for the largest jackpot has long since been surpassed, Wittkowski is the only lottery winner whose name I still recall, and even though we'd never met, I recognized him immediately as he stepped through the door of an Arlington Heights sports bar Monday to meet me for lunch.

You'd recognize him, too, if you were looking for him. After all, it's the face of the guy who won your money.

You'd remember the hair, a big brown mop parted down the middle, as dark and full as the day he stepped forward to claim the prize. Only the moustache has gone salt-and-pepper. Always a big guy, he's put on a few pounds over the years, but who hasn't.

In his golf shirt, shorts and running shoes, nothing about Wittkowski shouts money, but the tan and easy smile certainly whisper relaxed. Mike Wittkowski looks like a guy who has led a good life.

'I haven't changed'

So, is he set for life financially?

"I should be fine," he says with the understatement befitting a man who can now honestly tell anybody who asks what he does for a living that he's "in investments."

Will he ever take a regular job again?

"I don't plan on it," he said.

We were having this conversation because Wednesday will be the 20th anniversary of the $40 million drawing. The date, Sept. 1, 1984, resonates with me because it also happens to be my 20th wedding anniversary. We announced the numbers at our wedding reception, which sounds kind of cheesy, but such was the intensity of interest at the time. I had at least one losing ticket. It seemed as if nearly everybody did.

Wittkowski, you should know, never really was a $40 million man. Although he bought the winning ticket and stepped forward on his own to claim the money, he split it four ways in a partnership with his father, sister and brother. His share was really $10 million, which comes to $500,000 a year before taxes. The last of the family's 20 installments -- $1,550,000 after withholding -- arrived a year ago.

That's good money, but when Wittkowski poormouths that among his Inverness neighbors, "I'm the poor relation," he might not be far from wrong.

Wittkowski and wife Frances got engaged just a week before he won the money.

"I would hate to see where I would've been without her," he says, meaning he's not sure he would have been able to keep his head on straight.

She still runs the family checkbook.

"He's not a fancy kind of guy," explained Frances, who by then had joined us. "But he has a heart of gold, and in the beginning, he loaned out a lot of money, and I had to put a stop to it."

It's a point of pride with Wittkowski that he hasn't become a fancy kind of guy.

"I'm driving a Chevy Tahoe, and I'm drinking Miller Lite. Hopefully I haven't changed," he said.

While he tried his hand at owning a restaurant and a liquor store, neither of which worked out, Wittkowski has used his financial freedom mainly to pursue spending time with the couple's three boys -- ages 17, 15 and 12.

In a world where it is now common for both parents to work, the Wittkowskis have been able to enjoy seeing their sons grow up. That's worth some money.

Wittkowski has always coached his sons' baseball and basketball teams, always helped get them off to school in the morning and been there to greet them afterward. He could chaperon their field trips and assist with their homework.

"A lot of dads don't get to do that stuff," he said.

'We just got lucky'

There's money saved for the boys' college education, enough for "wherever they want to go," but Wittkowski is also "thrilled" that his oldest son put in 18 hours over the weekend in a grunt job at a country club -- "shining shoes and cleaning toilets."

"He knows we got lucky," Fran said, referring to the son and the challenge of raising kids under these circumstances. "We just got lucky. It doesn't mean he's going to get lucky." (The oldest son, by the way, didn't learn about his parents' lottery jackpot until he was 7 years old, when another kid told him on the school bus.)

Wittkowski's father, who always worked two jobs when he was growing up, died last year.

The reason Wittkowski picked the sports bar for the interview was that it's near his father's home, which he has slowly been trying to clean out so that he can sell it. Its a task he's found difficult to face.

Winning the lottery doesn't protect you from all of life's harsh realities.

There probably isn't anybody who held a lottery ticket that September day who doesn't still wish he had picked the winning numbers.

But if it wasn't going to be me or you, it's probably just as well that it was Mike Wittkowski.

Chicago Sun Times


DoctorEw220's avatarDoctorEw220

at least he thinks he won't need another job again, and didn't go to someone to get a lump sum.


If he were to win again, I bet he'd choose cash.


I am still waiting for the proof that a lottery winner would make more money after 20 years investing the lump sum than if they choose the annuity. Please post the link to an article that will make a believer out of anyone who isn't sure.  To me, it seems like you have to make back 40% of your money just to get back to zero, assuming 35% in taxes and 5% to spend on enjoying life. Then you have to make an additional X% to match or beat the annuity. But maybe I'm wrong, and its easier than I think.  

As I've said before, I am for having the cash option available and might choose it myself, but not out of the belief that I could invest it myself and make more money than the annuity. 

jeffrey's avatarjeffrey

The state lottery web pages explain what becomes of the jackpot to pay the annuity. The jackpot is invested in bonds in such a way to yield the payments every year. This way the original jackpot remains property of the state. The clever player should be able to do the same thing and keep the lump sump intact. 

First decide what you need to earn or want, then examine the bond market. When rates are low invest in short term bonds and base the amount on the rate earned. Invest the remainder in longer term bonds for a little better rate. As the bond market improves move the greater remainder into even longer term bonds and lock them in. I've heard of people with 20 year bonds at 17%. Isn't it sweet.

This doesn't even take the stock market into account. There is greater risk but the clever investor should be able to earn 5-10% with moderate risk. My favorite investments are companies whose stock value is tanked. Minor investments in multiple companies which are perched for a comeback can yield fantastic returns.

Good Luck

fxdwg's avatarfxdwg

Twenty years ago Illinois did not offer a cash option.


 as for cash vs annuity  I guess it is all relevant as to your age.

The tax liability will be 39.6% plus whatever your state tax is in Illinois it is 3% so we are looking at 42.6% before any investments which will also be taxed and because of your annuity the burden is 39.6%.

 Now take the lump sum and pay the taxes take a simple ten percent for frivolous spending then slip the rest in tax free municipal bonds with a 4% return depending on the lump sum but say after the dust has settled and you put 9 million in. the return is 30k per month and that would be not bad living.

Also best to consult with a lawyer(to set up a living trust to lower the tax load) and a trustworthy financial planner before you even turn in your ticket.

Also be aware that any gift that you give above 11,000 to friends and family you will be responsible for taxes on that as well 

jeffrey's avatarjeffrey

I thought the federal tax rate was down to 25% now and then add the state tax. Please let me know if I'm wrong. I use the cash value amount at Ohio Lottery Web site. Ohio state tax is 3.5% and fed is 25%.

Remember, it's just a game and have fun.

wiseone2's avatarwiseone2
Quote: Originally posted by jeffrey on September 01, 2004

I thought the federal tax rate was down to 25% now and then add the state tax. Please let me know if I'm wrong. I use the cash value amount at Ohio Lottery Web site. Ohio state tax is 3.5% and fed is 25%.

Remember, it's just a game and have fun.

The tax rates posted on the state lotteries websites indicate how much they withhold for state and federal taxes out of your winnings.  There usually is a disclaimer stating something to the effect that you will be responsible for any additional taxes owed after filing your tax returns.  Same way with your wages.  Employers withhold a standard tax rate percentage, but depending on your income level, that usually doesn't satisfy your total tax liability come filing time.  The federal "income" tax rate is currently around 39%, again, considering your tax bracket.

and didn't go to someone to get a lump sum.

End of comments
Subscribe to this news story