Lotto winners stay grounded | freep.com | Detroit Free Press
After Chris Crane won $42 million in the Mega Millions lottery, his kids were thrilled.
"Dad, we are rich," they said.
"No, dad's rich," Crane said. "You guys still have to work for a living."
Crane quit his job, left Michigan and bought several small farms in Georgia. Now, most of his children and several relatives work on the farms, baling hay, riding tractors.
"We don't need the money," Crane said. "I ... do it more for the kids than I do for myself. I wasn't just going to give them money to sit around all day. They are all into farming now."
Other big lottery winners have taken different paths with their sudden riches. Ralph and Mary Stebbins, who won $208 million in 2005, hold the record for the biggest jackpot in state history. After Ralph Stebbins died from a heart attack, his widow remarried.
Extremely private, she lives in the woods in Lapeer County, behind a metal gate. But her money is changing lives in Port Huron, her hometown. The Stebbins Family Fund has helped thousands, supporting everything from a dental clinic to reading programs.
Lottery winner-turned-farmer sows his good fortune in Georgia
Chris Crane gets up before the sunrise, makes breakfast and does some paperwork. Then he goes into the sweltering hot Georgia sunshine and puts up a fence or clears some land or cuts some hay or works with the cattle.
And then, the next day, he does it all over again.
This is what retirement looks like for the eighth-richest lottery winner in Michigan history.
Life is just about perfect, he said. His family is together in a small Georgia town, his kids are working and he's doing what he wants to do: farm.
"We don't have to worry about retirement. We don't have to worry about a job, but I probably work harder now than I ever did," Chris said.
Chris, 52, won $42 million in the Mega Millions lottery on Oct. 3, 2008. Instead of taking the cash-out option, he gets payments of $1.625 million before taxes annually for 26 years.
The money goes into a trust, which is then split with his wife, Tina Crane.
Chris was the first Mega Millions winner in Michigan to take the yearly payout, lottery officials said.
"We saw how many people had won and within a year or two, they were broke and had to go back to work again," Chris said. "There are a lot of stories out there like that. That was the reason behind doing it the way we did, and I still feel that was a good decision."
Early retirement plan
After he won, Chris retired as a service engineer at Chrysler in Auburn Hills and Tina retired as an X-ray technician at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac.
They moved from Washington Township to Georgia, where Tina was raised, and now own several farms over a 20-mile area, including a beef cattle farm, a hay farm and a pecan farm.
Though he works harder than ever, it is more gratifying. "It's good, honest work, to tell you the truth," Chris said.
When he sweats, he sees the results.
Most of the money from the first installment was spent on farm equipment and vehicles. "We bought the wife a new van, but that's been about it," Chris said. He drives a 1985 Chevy half-ton pickup with 218,000 miles.
They haven't made any money by farming. "With a farm, there is a risk," he said. "We planted corn but had it fail because of the heavy rains we had this spring. We didn't suffer like everybody else did, obviously, but still, that's a loss."
The Cranes live in a modest, 2,200-square-foot ranch-style house. "It's nothing fancy," Tina said. "Just keeps us comfortable."
Like most lottery winners, the Cranes have been overwhelmed by people who ask for money. They agreed to talk to the Free Press on the condition that the newspaper not identify the name of their Georgia town to minimize the calls and letters.
"We are down to one letter a week from beggars," Tina said.
"They don't want a job. They just want you to buy them a nice car."
A family farm
Three of the Cranes' four kids moved to Georgia with them. A son, Chris Crane Jr., 27, recently returned to Michigan to attend Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills. He is studying heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.
"I spent quite a bit of time working on the farm," he said. "It was definitely hard work, very hot. It was a different experience because I had never cut hay. It was all new to me, but it was fairly easy to understand. It was a matter of putting in the work."
Tina and Chris are trying to teach their kids the value of hard work.
"If they want money, they have to go work for it," Tina said.
She has plans of her own. She wants to build a horse ranch for children with disabilities, which would include a bunkhouse where kids could stay for a few weeks every year.
"This first year has been my husband's to play with," she said. "I keep telling him, the next million is mine."
Mountain of cash, quiet life, generous heart
Deep in the woods of Lapeer County, there is a large metal gate at the foot of a driveway with a security box and camera system.
"I'd like to talk to you about winning the lottery," you say into a security box, as an airplane rumbles low across the sky. "I'd like to talk to you about your dental clinic."
The electronic gate slides open and you are ushered onto the property by a man on an all-terrain vehicle.
Ralph and Mary Stebbins of Port Huron won $208 million in the Mega Millions lottery in 2005, becoming the richest lottery winners in Michigan history.
But since then, the family has faced tragedy and controversy. In 2006, Ralph was charged with attempted murder for stabbing his daughter's boyfriend. A few months later, he died of a heart attack at age 43.
There are so many questions to ask Mary. How do you spend your money? What's it like to be so stunningly rich?
The driveway is extra wide. The house is large and comfortable, but far from extravagant -- not even close to a mansion. It would look tiny on Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe.
The man gets off the ATV. "I'm Don Willett," he says. "I'm Mary's husband."
Mary is in the kitchen, barefoot and wearing a T-shirt. She is pleasant and kind, with an easygoing attitude. You ask a question. "Oh," she says, politely. "I don't do interviews."
"You should call Debbie Post." Debbie is the family spokeswoman and Mary's older sister.
Debbie starts to explain: "My brother-in-law had some demons and he passed," she says. "We had some negative press and that just terrified my sister. She will not do an interview."
The family has gotten through the hard times by relying on one other.
"We stay family," Debbie says. "We have always been a close family. My mom was a single mother and raised four daughters."
After her sister won the lottery, Debbie says, Mary was extremely generous to family. "All her sisters and their children have homes and don't have to worry about eating."
But little else has changed.
The family has remained close. "We do what families do," Debbie says. "We get together and celebrate or get together and mourn.
"We still have macaroni and cheese and hot dogs for dinner," she says.
Mary and Don Willett wed a year ago.
"Mary and her new husband are investors," Debbie says, "and enjoying life."
The Stebbins Family Fund
Debbie is more than a spokeswoman. She has another job -- giving away her sister's money as the Chief Giving Officer of the Stebbins Family Fund.
Although Mary and her new husband live in seclusion, the money is making a splash around Port Huron. The Stebbins Family Fund has donated hundreds of thousands to charities, but the most visible is at the Community Dental Clinic in Port Huron.
The family has a soft spot for dental issues because they couldn't afford to go to the dentist when they were children. Debbie had buck teeth until she got her first job.
"When you have people that are, for whatever reason, missing teeth and they are rotting ... you become hopeless. ... The thing about dentistry is you don't realize how it affects your whole life."
Writing checks from dawn to dusk
In the last three years, Debbie has written so many $25,000 and $50,000 checks that she can't remember all of them. The causes range from medical research to children's charities to help for seniors.
"Port Huron and St. Clair County are our heart," Debbie says. "That is where I usually bring back our giving. Teaching people to pay it forward, that's how we make a better world."
The family is revered by Rick Garcia, executive director of the United Way of St. Clair County, who says they have "helped, indirectly, thousands of people."
Debbie does more than give away money. She researches the charities and visits them.
"You can give and give to people all day," Debbie says. "Some will use it as a hand up. Other people become crippled by it. It's almost like you become an enabler. We love when people appreciate help and pay it forward."