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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

can retire?

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

"Progressive"

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

sweepstakes,

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,

everything

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

millionaire."

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

benefits,

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

excursions

to Atlantic City. Her husband didn’t like to go, she says, but a

friend,

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

machines

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

luckily

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

dollars.

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

said"

— 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

Ongradi,

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

it from."

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

advertising,

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

a living."

Joyce Ongradi was born in Doylestown and brought up in Hopewell

Township.

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

drygoods

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

50-some

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

apparently,

she says, few of the other winners wanted to be involved. "It

would have been interesting to see the kind of people that they

were,"

she says and laughs readily. "If they were all Plain Janes like

me."

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

TV.

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

money."

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

dollars!’"

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

friend.’

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

to win.’

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

strike

them, too.

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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