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$80-million wake-up call

"I went to sleep a poor man and woke up worth millions,'' says the leader of the newest group of Florida Lotto winners.

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
"This is not a joke," Reggie Harvey tells two members of the Lotto group who called him Thursday while cruising in the Caribbean.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


It was 6 a.m. when the phone awakened Reggie Harvey and his wife, Alexis, a call that would change their lives.

"We won," said the voice on the other end.

"Yeah, right," replied Harvey.

Each week, Harvey and nine members of the administrative staff at the Whispering Pines Nursing Center in New Port Richey throw a few bucks into a birthday pool to buy cakes, drinks and gag gifts for each other.

When there is a surplus -- and when the lottery jackpot climbs into tens of millions -- the group buys 10 quick-pick tickets.

The early morning call was from one of his co-workers. They held the single winning ticket, worth $81.6-million.

"Twenty-five percent of the people working at Whispering Pines are now multi-millionaires," said Harvey. "The working guy hit it."

On hearing the news, the 50-year-old Harvey did what he always does. He went to work. However, on this day, he arrived a couple of hours early, stunned at the prospect of wealth.

Harvey and seven other members of his group -- two are on a cruise ship in the Caribbean -- met at the nursing home at 7 a.m.

He eschewed his usual shirt and tie in favor of black sweat pants, a green polo shirt and sneakers. No socks. Alexis Harvey, 53, who works at a nursing home in Clearwater, decided to go with him.

"I got to say what I always wanted to," she told the St. Petersburg Times Thursday afternoon: " "I'm not coming in today because I won the lottery.' "

Once everyone in the group arrived at the nursing home, Harvey, who is the executive director, took the ticket from the safe and photocopied it.

Then he called the lottery office in Tallahassee and relayed the numbers printed on the ticket's bar code. The group spent a tense half-hour waiting for a call back before officials confirmed the good news.

The group put its ticket, the biggest single winning ticket in Florida lotto history, in a $50 safe deposit box at a NationsBank branch.

Once it is redeemed, each of the seven women and three men can receive about $270,000 a year for 30 years. Or, if they choose to take a lump-sum payout, each would get about $3.9-million.

Before any of that could be decided, the eight workers had to notify their two colleagues on the cruise ship. They feared the vacationers might not believe them, since before they left, Harvey promised he would play a prank on them while they were at sea.

"They're going to think this is a joke," Harvey said. He called the ship and sent a fax, but there was no immediate reply.

Around noon, Harvey's group uncorked a bottle of sparkling cider at the nursing home -- alcohol is not allowed inside -- and gave the news to the 41 residents.

The other winners appointed Harvey as their spokesman and through him declined to comment for this story.

The Harveys moved to Pasco County from Louisiana last fall, after vacationing in the area for three years. They had hoped to retire to the Suncoast -- Harvey loves to fish for tarpon -- and decided to find jobs here.

Harvey thought he lucked out when he got the executive director's job at Whispering Pines, and when his wife got an nursing position at a home in Clearwater.

But luck has not always smiled on the Harveys.

He grew up in Louisiana and worked the offshore oil fields in the summers while putting himself through college.

After running his own construction business in Louisiana, Harvey suffered a back injury in the 1970s and was forced to sell. That is when he started working in a nursing home for the mentally retarded. He became interested in geriatric care and later worked in nursing homes in Louisiana.

When they were first together in 1979, Alexis Harvey said, "We didn't make $500 between the two of us in two weeks." In the 1980s Harvey had a cancer scare, which left him with large medical bills.

In 1990, records indicate, Harvey filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He declined to discuss the issue Thursday. "I'd rather not say one way or another," he said. "I'm not sure if that much of my personal life should be in the paper."

Yet Harvey, who loves to kick back with a beer and cook Cajun meals, acknowledges that his life is going to get better because of one piece of paper bought at the Darlington Food Store in Holiday.

"I went to sleep a poor man and woke up worth millions," he said.

Harvey and his wife said they will spend the money on their family, taking care of the five children and four grandchildren they have between them.

"They are guaranteed an income for the rest of their lives," he said. "How great is that?"

They will also, as planned, buy a home. Right now, they rent a modest home in New Port Richey. The couple already has an 18-foot power boat, but Harvey said, "that may be upsized considerably."

At 4 p.m. Thursday, Harvey and his wife went home and opened a bottle of champagne. "It ain't Bud, but it'll do," he said. And the two people on the cruise called to find out what was so urgent.

"Are you ready for this?" he said into the phone. "We just hit the lottery. . . . This is not a joke. I swear to God this is not a joke. This is not a joke. Believe me, guys. There was only one winning ticket, and we got it. If you want a glass of champagne, you can have it, darlin'. You can afford it."

There is one thing that all the money will not change for Harvey or the other winners, he said.

They will not quit their jobs right away. They all made that pact before they bought the ticket.

"You don't just drop everything," Harvey said. "We're not going to walk out. No one is leaving until replacements are found, it's more like a family than a job."

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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