Maybe it’s because of his years as a top aide to two U.S. senators in Washington, but 74-year-old Robert Harris of Lakeland was skeptical when he opened the newspaper Nov. 7 and saw that his numbers won a $550,000 Florida Lottery prize.
“I was at home eating a doughnut. I thought the number looked familiar, so I looked at my ticket and compared my number. Yep, they screwed it up,” he deadpanned.
What was your next step? I asked him.
“My next step was not to panic. I needed to verify the number in the newspaper, so I go by a 7-Eleven on the way to the gym and asked the guy to run the numbers. He had the same numbers. But maybe his machine screwed up. So I went to Publix and bought some Fantasy 5 tickets. I asked them to run the numbers. Same result.”
With three independent verifications, Harris went home and called his daughter, who works in theme park public relations in Kissimmee, to tell her the good news “She screamed for five minutes.” Then she went online and discovered her dad was the only winner in the Nov. 6 Lucky Money drawing.
“She asked if I was nervous. I said, ‘No, I expect this is a dream.’ ”
Two days later, Harris was in a car with his son, a political consultant in Ocala, driving to Tallahassee to pick up his winnings.
Harris decided to take a lump-sum payment of $405,045 rather than an annuity that would pay out $550,000 over 20 years, ending when he would be 94.
He said he’ll invest most of it. The rest? “I know what my daughter plans to do. She’s probably in the mall even as we speak,” he joked.
Harris bought the winning ticket at the Publix at U.S. 98 and Marcum Road, where he buys Lottery tickets about twice a week. “I’ve been playing and winning enough to keep playing,” he said.
Typically he plays numbers associated with his birthday, but he switched it up for his winning ticket combo of 6, 18, 29, 42, 14. He started with 6 and 18 because his sister’s address is 618. He added 29 because he purchased two quick picks and both included 29. The 42 was from his service number in the military. And the Lucky Ball number of 14 came from reversing his birth year of ’41.
She asked if I was nervous. I said, ‘No, I expect this is a dream.’
Harris said he’s not worried about people trying to mooch from him because of his winnings because “It’s too late for that.” But he said he was surprised how many documents he had to sign in Tallahassee to make it clear he understood the risks associated with coming into a lot of money.
Those documents, he figures, resulted from the case of Abraham Shakespeare, an uneducated Lakeland man who was the victim of scams and eventually murder after he won a $30 million Florida Lottery jackpot in 2006.
In addition, he received an official letter from the state warning him of scams. “Guess who signed it? Rick Scott, the biggest scammer of all,” he said.
Harris, who still follows politics closely, doesn’t hide his loyalty to the Democratic Party. After a teaching career in Lakeland and Auburndale, he went to Washington in 1973 to work for Sen. Lawton Chiles as staff director of the subcommittee on governmental affairs. After Chiles left Washington to return to Florida as governor, Harris worked for Sen. John Glenn for several years and retired from federal service in 1998 as the Postal Service vice president for governmental affairs.
Returning to Lakeland, he taught American history and world history at Lakeland High School for three years before retiring for good.
Harris was born on a farm in Knights Station northwest of Lakeland and attended Rochelle High School and Florida A&M, where he was newspaper editor and an All-American track-and-field athlete. He ran on a FAMU relay team “ranked No. 1 in the world. My job was simply to get the baton to Bob Hayes and we’d go collect the gold medal.”
After graduating with a degree in history and economics, Harris moved back to Lakeland to teach at Rochelle High School before desegregation and Auburndale High School afterwards.
He credits excellent teachers at Rochelle for providing him a firm educational foundation. In those days of segregation, teaching and preaching were the most available jobs for educated African-Americans, he said, so he benefitted from “the cream of the crop” individuals who would have had opportunities in other professions “if life had been fair.”
“It made my life better,” the son of a preacher said. “But it robbed them of opportunities.”