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Published December 08, 2009, 06:55 AM

Who wants to be a millionaire? North Dakota farmer wins lottery

A Grafton family did — but they’re low-key about lottery win George Nelson could be the model for a North Dakotan who wins a big lottery jackpot.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

GRAFTON, N.D. — George Nelson could be the model for a North Dakotan who wins a big lottery jackpot.

Quiet, showing little emotion unless one watches his mustache and eyes closely, Nelson has the deadpan humor of a retired Norwegian farmer who remembers “not having two nickels to rub together.”

He’s a most unlikely person, he says, to win a $1.6 million jackpot, the state’s biggest so far.

He and his wife, Char, and their children, Ventzi, 22, and Asya, 19, braved the limelight for a few minutes Monday to accept the ceremonial check for his winnings in his hometown Wally’s Supermarket, where he bought the winning Wild Card 2 ticket Nov. 24.

They still live on the farm near Auburn, just northeast of Grafton, and he compares farming to playing the lottery.

In fact, he told a friend, “If I had won this earlier, I could have farmed a year longer.”

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, whose office administers the state’s lotteries, presented the check, saying the Nelsons were “typical, good North Dakotans.”

“If we were going to vote for who should win the lottery, these are the kind of people we would vote for,” Stenehjem said.

That’s what everyone here says about the Nelsons.

George handles questions from strangers with grace and humor.

“I was pretty satisfied with my life the way it was,” Nelson said. “I don’t plan on any big changes now.”

Nor any big spending.

“Probably the closest I came was I drove by the car dealership on the edge of town, and I looked over there, and knew I could buy one, if I wanted to. That’s probably as far as it will go.”

But he is going to buy Char a new car, to replace the 2005 Toyota Vibe she drives.

He drives a 2003 Chevy Suburban.

For the kids

“The kids really won this,” he said, his emotion obvious, if subtle, as he nodded toward his two children, who he and Char adopted from Bulgaria. “This will go to them.”

When their first daughter, Larissa, died moments after being born in 1990, Char and George decided to adopt.

Ventzi got home last Monday from his job with the Carnival Cruise Line, where he’s a musical director for cruises, one to begin soon around Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. He hadn’t heard yet about his father’s big win.

They all were in the family room, Ventzi said, when his father said he had to show them something. He almost made it sound like bad news, Ventzi said with a smile.

But their father returned with a Herald article on the lottery win.

“He showed us the newspaper article. We didn’t know what it was about. He said, ‘Look at the numbers.’ Then, he showed us the lottery ticket. Then nothing much more was said. We drove to Bismarck the next day.”

That was instead of turning in the ticket in Grafton, Char explained. “If we came here to Wally’s, everyone would know who we were,” Char explained.

They borrowed a relative’s van for the trip. George smiled as he admitted he stored the ticket inside a thermos bottle, stowed it in a storage space under his seat, and sat on it all the way.

According to Stenehjem’s office, after $412,039 in federal taxes and $91,308 in state taxes was withheld from Nelson’s jackpot win of $1,648,155, he took home an actual check of $1,144,808.

He tucked it in his shirt pocket on the ride home from Bismarck last week, Nelson said. Then, he saw part of the check sticking out, so he folded it down once more, adding that was probably not necessary, giving his low-key appearance.

“Who would look at me and think I would be carrying a million-dollar check? Best camouflage in the world.”

They first wanted to get the big check salted away, “protected,” as Nelson put it, before taking part in the public celebration Monday that included lots of well-wishers, a cake and balloons.

Wally DeSautel of Wally’s remembers when George was born.

“I used to carry groceries out for his mother,” Wally said. “They are a wonderful family. It couldn’t happen to better people. They are just common, ordinary folks.”

George Nelson returns the hometown feeling.

“If I was going to win it, this is where I’d want to win,” he said of Wally’s.

Char and George met Heather Hamilton, who sold him the winning ticket, on Monday, too.

Hamilton also sold the ticket in October that won a $200,000 Powerball jackpot to an anonymous winner, making Wally’s “the luckiest supermarket in North Dakota,” Mike DeSautel proclaimed.

Char chatted with Heather for several minutes and hugged her, promising her quietly, “We won’t forget.”

George wore a button with a photo of Asya, a senior in high school, in her basketball uniform.

They would love to go on one of the cruises Ventzi works on, but they can’t get away because they are caretakers for Char’s mother.

George plans to do more fishing with Asya.

“Nice and peaceful, in ponds in cow pastures,” he said. “Catching big lunkers isn’t the deal.”

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