RED BUD, Ill. (AP) — 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 Illinois Lottery requires, with rare exceptions, that winning ticket holders appear for a news conference and related promotions, partly to show that it pays out prizes. The winning ticketholders 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 firemen's 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?'"
"They deserve it," added Brenda Holcomb, a retired bartender thrilled it was someone from Red Bud — and not a passing motorist — who'd won with the ticket bought at the local MotoMart convenience store. "Of course, it would be better if I had it. I'd have a Miller Lite truck parked outside here right now."
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 safely in a lockbox, a worker quipped, "I guess you came to put your ticket away," unaware that was the truth.
"'Yeah, I won this thing,'" Butler replied. "I laughed it off."
With money that could allow them to relocate anywhere, the Butlers pledge 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."
None of it could be better to Michael Jones, the Illinois Lottery's superintendent who had hoped all along that the holder of the Red Bud ticket was a local.
"I wanted Red Bud to bask in the rewards," Jones told the AP. "If you wanted to have a perfect example of the randomness, the luck, this is it — a ticket bought at a MotoMart in as picturesque a town as Red Bud. It's like out of a Frank Capra movie."