By Nicholas J.C. Pistor, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
RED BUD, Ill. — People here are tired of the rumors. They just want to know who won.
In a resilient community that has experienced significant economic ups and downs over recent years, gossip is rampant about who might have achieved the ultimate up.
Someone among them — or who at least was among them long enough to buy a winning lottery ticket — won one-third of the largest Mega Millions multistate lottery jackpot in history.
Wednesday morning, they will get their answer, when the winner steps forward at a press conference at City Hall to accept a mock check for $218 million, Illinois lottery officials said.
It will be the only public winner. Those who already claimed their share of the prize on the other tickets, sold in Maryland and Kansas, chose not to reveal their identities. In Illinois, the winner must come forward.
The suspense has built in classic small-town ways. Neighbors have questioned neighbors. Retailers have watched for unusually big purchases. Speculation with no apparent origin has spread through residents like a case of the flu.
“We’ve heard lots of rumors of names and families who may have won,” said Byron Burmester, who lives in Red Bud and once worked at the local IGA grocery store before becoming director at a nearby sister store.
“But none of it has credibility. Whoever it is has done a great job of keeping it secret, and that’s probably a wise thing to do.”
It started with an announcement that one of the March 30 winning tickets was sold at the MotoMart convenience store on Main Street. Soon, reporters from across the nation descended on Red Bud, about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, to find the winner.
“It’s been a frenzy,” said Jeremy Walker, a lawyer in Red Bud. “One person had the New York Post and People Magazine knocking on their door asking if they won. It’s always great to see your town in the news for something good, and it has been exciting, but we’ll be glad when it’s over.”
Despite its small size of about 3,700 people, Red Bud is no stranger to national attention. In 1991, the town made national headlines and a feature in Life Magazine when its largest employer, a factory that made air conditioners and furnaces, shut down. Inter-City Products Corp., which produced Arcoaire and Comfortmaker products, moved 650 local jobs to Canada and Tennessee.
Even Jimmy Breslin, the iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning New York columnist who had idealized Red Bud as the quintessential Midwestern town, lamented the loss.
“Twenty years ago, everyone thought we were done,” said Walker, who heads the Red Bud Chamber of Commerce. “We are still here and doing OK.”
State lottery officials have said only that the winner is from Illinois, not necessary the Red Bud area. The store that sold the winning ticket serves a number of customers just passing through town along Illinois Routes 3, 154 and 159.
But Mayor Tim Lowry told CNN the fact that lottery officials are having the press conference at his city hall is a good sign. He explained, “Not knowing who it is, it seems like they want to make a splash in Red Bud.”