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After the Jackpot, Back to Work
This article by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 4, 1998. All rights reserved.
So you’ve won a million dollars and you think you
On Monday, July 26, 1993, Joyce Ongradi took a day off from her job
as secretarial assistant to the superintendent of Katzenbach School
for the Deaf in West Trenton and drove with her husband to Atlantic
City. She walked into Showboat casino and began to play the slots.
She played a few machines, then saw one called Quartermania, a
machine, wondered what that machine was about, put 12 quarters in
in groups of three, and won a million dollars.
Bells rang. The casino took her picture. The manager gave her a check
for the first installment. It seemed like a dream. "I looked at
it like a gift from heaven," says Ongradi. "Like, oh boy,
this will help with retirement and make life easier!"
All of us — if we have ever played the lottery, entered a
or fed the slots — have dreamed about winning a million dollars.
But after the dreams could come the dilemmas. We wonder how we would
spend all that money and how it would change our lives.
Ongradi insists her life didn’t change. At age 57 she lives quietly,
goes to work at the same job, takes the same kinds of vacations,
the same. Almost everything.
She soon realized that a million dollars is not a lot of money any
more. "A lot of people think I have a million dollars sitting
in my living room," says Ongradi, "but I’m not a
And she ‘s right. Her take is $51,000 a year for 20 years, so after
taxes she gets $36,000 or $37,000 a year.
Ongradi is a robust, down-to-earth woman, and retirement didn’t even
enter her mind. "I got really practical and I said `If I quit
my job, I lose my health benefits. I’ll have to buy my health
and people don’t realize how expensive that is. So you take that off
of the $36,000 or $37,000, and I still have a mortgage and expenses
that other people have. I would have been worse off instead of better.
Because I would have been losing my income at the time."
Her million dollar moment came after four or five once-a-year
to Atlantic City. Her husband didn’t like to go, she says, but a
Jerry, got her interested. "So I got in the habit of going every
July — usually one day during my vacation."
"We always said, Jerry and I, as we drove down, `Our bills are
paid, and this is money we’ve saved up. And we’re not going without
food.’ And all these sensible things that we used to say."
But by 1993 the friend had died of cancer, and she cajoled her husband
to take her, saying, "You’re really going to have to go with me
now that Jerry’s gone." So he agreed. Reluctantly."
It was the first time Ongradi had ever played a Progressive machine.
This particular machine, Quartermania, is linked in with other
in other casino hotels, she says, "and I guess they’re just set
so that they go off at a certain point. Mine went off at Showboat.
"Bells starting ringing. And on that particular machine it was
symbols that came up across the screen and said `Quartermania.’ There
were three or four of them in a row. And if you get them on the line
when you put in the third quarter, you win the million dollars. If
I had done something foolish like put in one quarter and those symbols
had all come up, I probably would have won $500 or maybe $1,000. It
has to be three quarters in the machine to win the jackpot, and
I did that. I put in three quarters, pulled, nothing. I put in three
again, nothing. On the fourth pull, when I had put my twelfth quarter
in, that’s when I won."
"I’d never played that machine before. And when the bell went
off, I was just waiting for my quarters. I had no idea what I had
won. Nothing was coming out. I was getting a little frustrated. I
thought `Well where’s my quarters?’"
"Until a man strolled up, very nonchalant. "I said, `Well
what did I win?’
"He said, `Well it’s right there.’
"So I looked up. It looked like $110,000 to me. `Oh, one hundred
and ten thousand, that’s really good!’ I said.
"He said, `Look again, because you won one million dollars!’
"And I had no idea! I HAD NO IDEA! And all the people around me
were all excited, and they were saying, `You don’t act like you’re
excited.’ Well I’m kind of a calm person, I guess. I think they were
more excited for me. All I kept saying was, `I gotta get my husband!
I gotta get my husband!’ I could see him, but his back was to me.
He was playing the nickel machine.
"So a little lady said, `Where is he? I’ll walk over and get him.’
" We both kind of got crying at the same time. It was an exciting
time! And we both said `Jerry’s got something to do with this!’
"The man who was next to me when I won said, `You know there was
another man who just played on the machine for the longest time, and
he left.’ And I walked up. Twelve quarters later I won a million
The right place at the right time. It’s luck."
For two hours the casino official hosted the couple at a bar while
the machine was inspected. "I thought afterwards, supposing the
man playing before me had tampered with the machine, I wouldn’t have
gotten the money." Two hours later she got her check, the first
installment. "They said, `You can have some of this in cash, if
you like. How much would you like?’"
Ongradi’s voice turns coy with remembered shock: "`Oh, I don’t
know. Give me a thousand!’" She laughs. I’m walking around after,
thinking `I wonder if anybody was following us." She adds, "I
probably could have had five, or ten if I wanted it. But I just
— she mimics nonchalance — "`Oh, gimme a thousand.’ I
just thought a thousand was a big deal."
"The casino offered us free room, dinner, everything, so we could
stay overnight. And I was so excited I said `Oh God, I’ve gotta get
home and tell somebody!’ And I didn’t want to call my parents and
tell them, because my mother had had a small heart attack. So we only
stayed about another hour, and then we left."
She did go on what might very loosely be termed a shopping spree.
"Everybody was saying, `Well, what did you go out and buy for
yourself?’ People think I’m crazy, but every time I went down in the
years before, I would go past one of these places that sells all these
concrete ornaments, and I said, `If I have any money left today, I’m
going to buy a bird bath.’ Every year I’d say `I think this is my
lucky day.’ And every year I’d come back broke. With no bird bath.
So I said to my husband `Today we’re buying a bird bath.’ That was
my extravagant expense on the way home from Atlantic City."
The casino had a big cardboard sign made out like a check: Joyce
one million thirty-three thousand and some small change. "So I
walked into my parents’ house, and I said, `Hi, look what I’ve won!’
And I held it up.
"And they said, `Oh, that’s nice.’ Just as calm as could be."
"Then my mother called her next door neighbor to tell her, but
that was about all the excitement there was. So you know where I get
Reports of her win were on TV news that night and in the Trenton Times
and the Trentonian the next day. And when Ongradi showed up for work
the next morning, that surprised a lot of people. "`Why are you
still working?’ they wanted to know. `Why didn’t you at least take
a day off?’" She addresses the memory. "Why? For what?"
"`If I won a million dollars I wouldn’t have been here the next
day,’" she reports her co-workers saying. "Well, I was. I
was there bright and early the next day."
Surprisingly enough the casino did not press to use her in
nor was she inundated with phone calls from sales people and people
asking for donations or loans. "I had very few phone calls,"
she recalls. "I think one insurance company called me. People
whom I hadn’t heard from in years, people from high school, called
me to say how wonderful they thought it was, to congratulate me, and
that was very nice. But no high pressure stuff."
Still everyone had suggestions for what she should do
with the money. "Like, `Oh, didn’t you buy yourself a nice piece
of jewelry? You should do that every year: buy yourself something
really extravagant.’ You could spend $36,000 very fast," says
the practical Ongradi. "I think it makes a difference how you
were raised," she says. "And my parents always worked for
Joyce Ongradi was born in Doylestown and brought up in Hopewell
Her father worked on a farm, then owned his own tractor-trailer and
had his own small-scale trucking business. Her mother was a homemaker
until her two children went to high school. Then she worked in a
store in Hopewell to help put Joyce’s brother through college.
Joyce was graduated from Pennington Central High School. She stayed
at home until her children were in school fulltime, then worked part
time for nearly eight years for a Pennington insurance agent and loved
it. But when he retired she took a civil service exam and went to
work for the audiologist at Katzenbach in 1981.
Ongradi no longer has the birdbath; it broke. And she has divorced
her husband. But for the most part her lifestyle has not substantially
changed. "Maybe if I had won this when I was 20, I would have
gone crazy!" she speculates. "And I would have spent every
penny as soon as I got it. But if you’ve lived a certain way for
years, it’s kind of silly to think you’re going to change."
Several years ago Showboat tried to organize a reunion of people who
had won a million dollars or more. (A reunion of millionaires!) Would
she be interested in coming? Ongradi said, "Sure." But
she says, few of the other winners wanted to be involved. "It
would have been interesting to see the kind of people that they
she says and laughs readily. "If they were all Plain Janes like
She lives very modestly in a small, attached townhouse with eggshell
yellow siding; she bought the house, not with her winnings, but with
an inheritance. Her routine is thoroughly ordinary. Up at 5:30 a.m.,
before she needs to get up, she walks and feeds the dog, a frisky
brown Corgi, eats breakfast, reads the paper and maybe throws in a
load of wash before she leaves for the day. "Same as always,"
she says with a chuckle. "Nothing’s changed." She’s at work
early. She doesn’t like to be late anyplace. After work she walks
the dog. Evenings she generally reads, knits, crochets, and watches
In April, over the school’s spring vacation, she’s going to Hawaii.
But she’s always wanted to go, and she’d probably have gotten there
anyway, even if she hadn’t won, she says. But the won money makes
it easier. She has "no desire to go to Europe or anything like
that." She might go to Bermuda or the Bahamas. And she and her
aunt went to Las Vegas one year and stayed a few days.
She traded in her car for a new Chevrolet and expects to do that every
three years. Not so before her win. She laughs: "We would drive
our cars until they fell apart. Like most people do." Now, without
a mechanic in the house, she says she plans to get rid of cars before
she has problems with them.
With her winnings she lives more comfortably. And "it’s nice not
to have to live from paycheck to paycheck," she notes, "as
many people do." Or to have to give up small luxuries like going
out to dinner, when sickness and doctor bills hit, as she had to do
with young children.
She invests some of the money (she’d never invested before), helps
her two adult children a little, and puts a little away for her four
grandchildren. "I certainly do not spend $36,000 on nonsense,"
she declares. Like most Americans of her age, she talks of her pension
and social security and eventual retirement. "Before, I didn’t
save a lot because there wasn’t a lot to save. Of course, now I do
much better. And I upped my deferred compensation at work."
Someone tried to steer her in the direction of a financial planner,
but she firmly turned that down. She says "I don’t want to lose
any money, and I don’t want somebody investing my money where I’m
going to make 30 percent but lose it next year. I would rather earn
less percentage. I guess because I don’t feel like I need a lot of
She’s begun to go to New York to see shows. Neither her parents or
her husband ever did that, she notes, but her new lifestyle here has
nothing to do with the money. She started going with friends from
work who suggested she go along with them, she says. Or she goes in
with her aunt. When she goes to New York City, it’s not in a stretch
limo: she’ll take the train or, with her aunt, join a bus tour.
She goes to Atlantic City maybe three times a year now, four at the
most, she says. (She’s won nothing since her cool million.). Other
casinos do not solicit her nor offer freebies more extravagant than
usual for the average gambler. "I don’t think I’m treated any
differently than anybody else, I guess because I don’t spend enough
money," she says. "I go down with a certain amount and I have
no plans on losing any more than that. I never want to lose more than
that $250." Ongradi stops herself and chuckles. "If my mother
ever heard me say that, she’d say `Oh my God! Two hundred and fifty
Atlantic City "does not hold that fascination for me," she
says. "I always thought if I won I would go a lot more often.
But I can take it or leave it. I guess I’m not addicted to it."
"People tell me all the time that I’m the same person I ever was.
And I think I am. Introducing me, they’ll say, `Oh, this is my
And after a while, we get to the point where they’ll say, `You know,
she won a million dollars.’ And they’ll look at me like `Oh my God,
that’s wonderful!’ And then they’ll say, `But she’s the same as she
ever was. She’s no different.’"
Ongradi agrees. "And again, it’s not a lot of money. Years ago
I never would have thought I would ever say that."
When someone tries to sell her a chance now at work, Ongradi says
she always buys. "But I always tell them `I’m not a very lucky
person.’ And they think about it a minute and they say, `Oh yes you
are!’ But I say `I only won once.’ And they say `That’s all you had
Yet besides shocking her cohorts that she came to work the next day
after winning a million dollars, Ongradi and her win have had another,
more telling, effect on the staffers at Katzenbach. Even without a
guardian angel, many of the Katzenbach staff hope Lady Luck will
But — in what is surely a further sign of these times — says
teacher Harriet Tewles, "Now when they take up a collection in
the lunch room to buy lottery tickets, we think of Joyce — `a
million dollars is not a lot of money anymore’ — and we wait until
the jackpot is at least two million."
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