Sudden wealth changes most people

Nobody gets justice. People only get good luck or bad luck.

-- Orson Welles

 

Wealth changes folks. I know.

When I first began working at The Chronicle back in the days when everyone still had a typewriter, the old guys told the story of a reporter who was busy one afternoon turning out some tedious council story.

His phone rang; he answered it. And suddenly he let out a cry of joy.

It seemed some elderly relative had passed away and left him a fortune.

“So long,” he said, (or something less polite) then got up from his desk and left the newsroom, never to return.

His news story -- half-finished on the copy paper in his typewriter -- gently waved goodbye in the breeze created by his abrupt departure.

Someone, probably the late John Barnes, who was city editor, told another reporter to see what he’d written and finish it up.

The tale of sudden riches became a newsroom legend, always inspiring the question: How would we react?

I started thinking about this because we had another big lottery winner last week. Pedro Quezada of New Jersey collected a cool $152 million (after taxes.) “It will not change my heart,” he told the Associated Press.

He said he would share his winnings with family and community, and his wife could have “whatever she wants.”

I’m happy for him. There’s a little of Pedro in everybody, but just not much in me.

I will never win the lottery because I don’t buy tickets. I am among those who politely refer to the habit as a state tax on hopeless optimism. (Or something less polite.)

This perspective is not shared in my household where someone I know describes her weekly purchase as “fun.”

“Why don’t you just roll down the window of your car and throw the money out?” I suggest.

But that aside, every big winner gives us all the chance to wonder for a while how we would react with the prospect of sudden wealth.

Generally, I notice, there is a consensus.

No, most would not quit our jobs, because this is what we like to do.

No, we would not suddenly descend into a world of self-indulgent spending because we see ourselves as decent and kind.

No, we wouldn’t forget our friends or desert them. We would repay all debts. We would contribute to church and charity.

But would we? Really?

When lotteries first took off in the early 1990s, a Wisconsin couple won a really big score. Everyone who knew them cheered.

They were school teachers engaged to be married. Friends and family described them as the good-natured, low-key kind of folks everyone liked.

Within a year, the couple’s engagement was over. They both had new life partners and had moved to different parts of the country.

Almost everyone had wagered great wealth would not change them.

Almost everyone lost the bet.

That’s how lotteries work.

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