RED BUD, Ill. – Merle Butler routinely laughed off what became the well-worn exchange among locals in Red Bud the instant word swept through the tiny southern Illinois village that a Mega Millions lottery ticket bought there scored a share of a record $656 million jackpot.
“Are you the winner?” someone would ask.
“Yeah, sure, I won it,” the retired Butler played along each time.
Little did anyone in the 3,700-resident town know Butler wasn’t kidding.
On Wednesday, 19 days since that drawing, Butler and his wife, Patricia, finally stepped in front of news cameras and reporters to publicly claiming their $218.6 million stake of the jackpot – the secret the famously private retirees and grandparents had no trouble keeping for so long.
Until going public to get the lump-sum windfall of $111 million after taxes, the Butlers had told fewer than five people – the closest of family and friends – of their newfound wealth.
“I answered most of the time truthfully and said, ‘Yes, I did (win).’ Most of the time, people didn’t catch it,” Merle Butler, 65, chuckled during the Illinois Lottery news conference in his hometown’s village hall.
“I figured the quieter I keep it, the better we are.”
The couple, who have grandchildren, have no immediate plans other than to craft an investment strategy. Perhaps months down the road, “there could possibly be a vacation in there,” quipped Butler.
Of the three jackpot-winning ticket holders from the March 30 drawing, only the Butlers came forward publicly.
The boon for the Butlers was also big for Red Bud, a village about 40 miles from St. Louis that’s more known for its yearly firemen’s parade and its elaborate downtown Christmas displays. About 100 locals gathered outside the village hall to see who the winner was, then clapped, whistled and yelled “Congratulations!” as the Butlers emerged briefly and were whisked away in a police car.
Merle Butler recounted the moments after discovering they had won. He said that when he first heard the numbers on the evening news, he rechecked them a couple of times before telling his 62-year-old wife.
“She giggled for about four hours, I think,” he said.
With money that could allow them to relocate anywhere, the Butlers pledged to stay put. Merle Butler called Red Bud a “comfortable, family-oriented community.”
“We’ve lived here a long time. We don’t plan to go anywhere else.”