By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Jean Graham was driving fast down Interstate 10, telling where they had been and where they were going, when her husband leaned forward and said they were nearly there.
Stuckey's was just ahead, said Burnie. She better get ready to exit, because they always stop at Stuckey's. The hot dogs are two for 99 cents.
Lunch came a few minutes later on a plastic tray -- glasses of milk and hot dogs oozing low-grade chili and liquid cheese stuff.
"Now, don't these look good?" said Jean. "Cheap and good! Why would you want to pay more?"
She had come to this question and place nine months after winning $41.7 million in the Texas lottery. It was the second-largest jackpot ever awarded a single ticket holder in the state, and Jean Graham had struck it rich in the way lightning strikes others dead -- not through anything she did or planned to do but completely by chance. She gave each of their two children a third of the new fortune, which, after taxes, left her and Burnie an annual income of about $500,000 for the next 20 years. What would they do with all that dough? What would their dough do to them? At the ages of 64 and 71, Jean and Burnie Graham would have to start over.
"They're a rare breed," said their son, Eddie. "They'll never get uppity. You couldn't change them with a crowbar."
Burnie had retired long ago as an instructor of air-conditioning repair, and Jean instantly became a retired nurse. They gave their old clapboard home in a hardscrabble stretch of northeast Houston to a church and moved into a pale brick affair behind pale brick walls in Sharpstown. The house cost about $200,000, and Jean bought another next door for her mother. Whether to show it off, or to show what regular people they still are, or maybe just for a little company, she let a reporter inside.
"Most people are very happy for us," Jean explained. "It couldn't have happened to nicer people -- that's what they say."
The ceilings were high, the carpet was deep, and the air-conditioning was set extra cool. The wall hangings were chosen by a decorator to match the decor, and above the fireplace, there was one book, The Rector's Wife, and it matched, too. Here's the sculpture of dolphins she got on her last trip to Vegas; there's the new piano no one can play. Yes, this is a La-Z-Boy, she said, "and it's real comfortable, too."
Jean is 20 pounds heavier than a year ago but has dyed her gray hair blond and feels much healthier. At the kitchen table, she sat down beside Burnie, who gazed through thick glasses from under his baseball cap. "We do the same things we always did," he said. "We just do them better."
Burnie likes the new house, his new truck, his interest in a race car, but he still shops garage sales and buys his clothes at Kmart. His children gave him a $2,500 watch, but he wears one he got free for cigarette labels. Jean bought him a $65 pair of shoes, but he leaves them in the closet for special occasions. He said he comes from a long line of working people, "living off of what we make,'' and he had a hard time understanding that their bank account was growing, by interest alone, at a rate of $400 a day.
"In September, we're going to get $500,000 more,'' Burnie said. "We got everything we need. What are we going to do with that?"
"Oh, I'm sure we'll find something," said Jean, with a laugh.
Before the Grahams won, their names were never in the phone book, and afterward, Jean fibbed to reporters that they were from Humble. Consequently, they haven't been deluged with pleas from strangers and accountants, and, fortunately, those people who know of their wealth generally leave them to it. More than any other, then, it seems their relationship with the bank has altered most. "Just let us walk in there," said Burnie. "Them people stand at attention!"
The bankers pester Jean to invest her money, but she tells them, "We're old. We're going to spend it." She's a fervent believer now in the easy life, but it's a new faith, and there are still times when she regrets being cloistered away. In one moment, she'll say, "I'm so happy not to work.'' And then in a different mood, she'll say, "I miss work more than anything in the world."
She fried up pork chops for lunch that day, boiled some butter beans and collard greens, and laid them on the table. "All we missing now is cornbread," said Burnie, and Jean answered, "I know Burnie, I know, but I'm feeling kind of lazy today."
How had they spent the day before? Jean said they watched The Price Is Right ("Oh that's fun!"), and then after that, the O.J. trial. ("We argue about that all the time.")
But what had they actually done?
They paused to think. Did the grandkids come over? No, they didn't, and Burnie couldn't remember doing anything. They've hired a yardman and a housekeeper; he had given away his riding lawn mower and woodworking tools. "Didn't you clean off the breakfast table?" Jean offered. That's right, Burnie said, and he also took out the garbage.