Herb Benham

Friday, May 06 2011 11:44 AM

HERB BENHAM: Gotta love these lottery winners -- I sure do

By Herb Benham

The call came in Wednesday morning. A local couple, Bob and Etta May Urquhart, had won $51 million in the lottery. They'd bought their ticket at the Mobil station at the corner of Oak and Brundage.

The newsroom was abuzz. People who work at newspapers are two things: poor and hungry. Wave a cheeseburger or the specter of $51 million and they are quick to come out of their newsroom-induced comas.

"Herb, they asked for you," said Jennifer, my editor. "You go and talk to them."

They wanted to talk to me? Only me? Say that again. It has a musical quality to it.

Naturally, in these situations, modesty is the order of the day, but it is false modesty and everybody knows it. You can go your whole career and not have the subject of a story call and ask for you by name.

"Grab a car and interview them," Jennifer said. "Do you know where the Mobil station is?"

I did. It was on Brundage Lane before it turned uppity and became Stockdale. The station was next to a dry cleaners, and 100 feet away from Young's Market, home of so many pleasant childhood memories, which usually involved watermelons or Flame Seedless.

I drove in the company Prius, powered by gas, electricity and, in this case, the lofty opinion I had of myself given that a lottery winner had asked for me by name.

Perhaps there was more to this story than I knew. I might have done them some kindness, stopped and helped them fix a flat tire or held their hand when a favorite cat had been carried away by a coyote. There were many things I could have done, and on the drive over, I imagined I had done them all.

It's possible that for all I had given them without expecting any payback, none at all, that they not only wanted to tell me their story but they planned to give me a small token of their appreciation.

I headed south on H to Brundage and when I reached the Mobil station, I was surprised there wasn't a herd of TV trucks or throngs of distant relatives awakened by the good news of a lineage that heretofore they had been content to ignore.

I saw Californian photographer Henry Barrios standing by the curb on the north side of the parking lot and, a few minutes later, Californian reporter Jason Kotowski, who emerged from the Mobil minimart carrying a lemon-lime Gatorade.

"They're inside with the lottery people," Henry said.

That's OK, I can wait. I've waited this long. When they're ready, I am, too.

Ten minutes later, out walked an older couple accompanied by a middle-aged man with a beard. They headed toward a blue SUV, close to where we were standing.

Did I say older couple? I didn't mean it. They looked good. In fact, I've never seen a couple who looked better for their age, whatever that age might have been.

They could have been movie stars. Handsome movie stars. Movie stars people would buy tickets to go and see.

This attractive couple (and surely they had a literate and sensitive side as well), were accompanied by several people from the lottery, one being Isidro (Sid) Ramirez, who announced that there would be no interviews, and that questions would be answered at a press conference in Fresno the following day.

I reached out and shook Bob Urquhart's hand, congratulated him and introduced myself.

I tried to hug Etta May, but I was stopped by Ramirez, who was acting as human shield. Ramirez wasn't tall and I considered hurdling him to get to my long lost Etta May.

"Yes, I read your column," Bob said as he stepped into the SUV.

You do? Thank you. I love you.

Then they were gone. Two nice people, movie stars, really, who didn't look their age. That was $51 million driving into an uncertain future, a future that could have included a biographer who would work for hamburgers.

I fought the urge to throw myself against the window or grab the rear bumper and be dragged down Oak Street.

One in 176 million. I knew those odds. Their odds were mine.

These are the opinions of Herb Benham and not necessarily The Californian's.

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