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Associated Press
Merle Butler of Red Bud, Ill., holds up his winning Mega Millions lottery ticket Wednesday.

Retirees claim their $218.6 million

Illinois pair go public for jackpot share

– Merle Butler routinely laughed off what became the well-worn exchange among locals in Red Bud the instant word swept through the tiny southern Illinois village that a Mega Millions lottery ticket bought there scored a share of a record $656 million jackpot.

“Are you the winner?” someone would ask. “Yeah, sure, I won it,” the retired Butler played along each time.

Little did anyone in the 3,700-resident town know Butler wasn’t kidding.

On Wednesday, 19 days since that drawing, Butler and his wife, Patricia, finally stepped in front of news cameras and reporters to publicly claiming their $218.6 million stake of the jackpot – the secret the famously private retirees and grandparents had no trouble keeping for so long.

Until going public to get the lump-sum windfall of $111 million after taxes, the Butlers had told fewer than five people – the closest of family and friends – of their newfound wealth. They also consulted an attorney and a cadre of financial advisers to sort out how to invest it.

“I answered most of the time truthfully and said, ‘Yes, I did (win).’ Most of the time, people didn’t catch it,” Merle Butler, 65, chuckled during the Illinois Lottery news conference in his hometown’s village hall.

“I figured the quieter I keep it, the better we are.”

The couple, who have grandchildren, have no immediate plans other than to craft an investment strategy. Perhaps months down the road, “there could possibly be a vacation in there,” quipped Butler, a former computer systems analyst and Vietnam veteran.

Of the three jackpot-winning ticket holders from the March 30 drawing, only the Butlers came forward publicly. The winning ticket holders in Kansas and Maryland were able to remain anonymous.

The boon for the Butlers was also big for Red Bud, a village about 40 miles from St. Louis that’s more known for its yearly firefighters parade and its elaborate downtown Christmas displays. About 100 locals gathered outside the village hall to see who the winner was, then clapped, whistled and yelled “Congratulations!” as the Butlers emerged briefly and were whisked away in a police car.

“Everyone now knows who we are,” Mayor Tim Lowry told The Associated Press of the village’s 15 minutes of fame since the March 30 drawing. “We used to be a joke on a T-shirt saying, ‘Where the Hell is Red Bud?’ ”

Merle Butler recounted the moments after discovering they had won. He said that when he first heard the numbers on the evening news, he rechecked them a couple of times before telling his 62-year-old wife.

“She giggled for about four hours, I think,” he said.

The Butlers stayed up all night, learning a little after daybreak that three tickets shared in the spoils. When Butler arrived at the bank the minute it opened that day to put the ticket in a lockbox, a worker quipped, “I guess you came to put your ticket away,” unaware that was the truth.

With money that could allow them to relocate anywhere, the Butlers vow to stay put. Merle Butler called Red Bud a “comfortable, family-oriented community.”

“We’ve lived here a long time. We don’t plan to go anywhere else,” he said.