Lottery Winner Curtis Sharp has seen it all and spent it all
By Beverly Keel
AUGUST 23, 1999: After a long day of driving a rental van to Georgia and back in the relentless summer heat, Curtis Sharp Jr. relaxes on his girlfriend's brown sofa under a large brown painting of a sunset. His caramel skin glistens with the telltale sign of his day's efforts, which took an hour longer than expected because of construction obstacles. Using firm but gentle pressure, he rubs his inner eyebrows in an attempt to find a little relief from the day's stress.
After opening a few bills and reading a bit of correspondence, Sharp lifts the Velcro straps of his beige leather shoes before setting them aside and stretching his short legs out on the sofa. You might not know it looking at him, clad in blue pants and a gray and blue polo shirt that stretches across his soft round paunch, but Sharp is the embodiment of the American dream.
While Sharp now toils in near-obscurity in Nashville, he was once the nation's most famous millionaire. In 1982, he won $5.6 million in the New York State Lottery and became a celebrity overnight. Jaded New Yorkers couldn't get enough of the charismatic, roly-poly figure in his trademark derby hat. Strangers stopped him on the street and begged to touch or, even better, rub him for good luck. A working class hero, he was proof that nice guys do finish first, or at least in the nation's wealthiest 5 percent--think Donald Trump before we knew he was a jerk.
During his 15 minutes of fame, he dined with Andy Warhol, Lily Tomlin, and boxer Larry Holmes. Once, when he got up to buy a hot dog at Yankee Stadium, the game came to a momentary halt when the crowd started chanting, "Curtis, Curtis!" Officials asked him to return to his seat after player Dave Winfield got distracted. An off-Broadway play was based on his life, a sitcom was in the works, and Johnny Carson wanted him to appear on The Tonight Show, but Sharp was too busy.
His life was a whirlwind of limos, red carpets, alcohol, and women. Bad investments, extreme generosity, and excessive spending often caused Sharp to run out of money before his $191,000 annual checks (after taxes) arrived in December, but it never phased him, never caused his exuberant smile to fade.
Sharp's story is one we all wonder about: What would we do if we had a million dollars? Immediately, our minds are absorbed with the houses and cars we would buy, the jobs we would quit, the noses we might rub in it all. But then what? What happens for the next 19 years of the lottery payoff? And after that? In our dreams, we simply fast-forward to happily ever after.
But in real life, it's far more complicated. As Sharp can testify, the high life has limited, even fleeting, appeal, and the number of people expecting something from you only grows exponentially with the amount of money you possess. It's this very question that led the 61-year-old lottery winner from a life of riches and fame in New York to his modest existence in a Nashville suburb.
By his own reckoning, Sharp's life changed drastically three years ago, when he rededicated his life to the Lord. "I'd done tried most everything and wasn't nothing working," he says. "I had money, I had women, I had the luxury cars. There was still something missing and I knew what it was, but I didn't want to accept what it was. I knew it was God missing in my life.
"I have always been religious, but I wasn't serving God like I was supposed to. I was doing things of the world. I would go to church on Sunday, but when you do that, you're straddling the fence."
Sharp is now one of 43 ministers at Priest Lake Community Baptist Church, where he preaches about twice annually. A licensed minister who hopes eventually to be ordained, he delivers most of his sermons at the mission on Thursdays, at prisons on Saturday nights, and at retirement homes during the week. "I learned that you are not supposed to take life for granted, you aren't supposed to take God for granted," he says. "Because you don't realize it, but life is just one breath away from death. We have a tendency to live like we are going to be here forever, and we shouldn't do that because life is closing in."
Church was a large part of Sharp's life growing up in Maysville, N.C., with his younger brother and three younger sisters. They lived 15 miles from Camp LeJeune Marine base, where his mother worked; his father worked at the sawmill, the rock quarry, and the railroad. "My father was the type of person who was real free-hearted," Sharp remembers. "People would be coming through town, and he would bring them home for dinner. He would get paid, and he would buy everybody a drink. I guess that sort of rubbed off on me."
Sharp spent his summers working on a farm, picking cotton, peas, and blueberries and stacking hay and breaking corn. With his father's permission, he dropped out of school in 1955 after the 11th grade and joined the Navy, along with several of his close friends. "He said it was all right because during that time, a lot of kids were leaving home because there wasn't no work. Work was scarce."
He spent two years, four months, and one day in the Navy, first on a ship based in Norfolk, Va., and then in Charleston, S.C., where he fathered a daughter out of wedlock. "The military was a good experience, and I enjoyed it to a point, but Eisenhower was the president, and it was a cold war," Sharp explains. "You couldn't get rank or nothing because wasn't nothing going on. I maxed out. I was supposed to be there for four years, but they let us out."
He returned to Maysville and then followed his sister to New Jersey, where he landed a job in Morristown as a food service worker at a large state mental institution. After five years, he took a dishwashing job at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., and was later transferred to night cleaning, where he worked for five years before being promoted to alarm and control board operator, and then plant watch operator, which required him to oversee the facility's heating and air-conditioning system.
In 1959, he married Barbara Meadows, who had been a year behind him in high school. They were high school sweethearts until the military separated them. By coincidence, she had also moved to New Jersey, and they reunited. They had three children: Berdina, now 39; Curtis, now 37; and Jonquin, now 29. Eventually, the marriage began to crumble as Sharp began to stray; in 1968, he fathered another son out of wedlock. "I used to be, I won't say a womanizer, but I messed around with women, and that wasn't right," he says. "I had a good wife."
By 1982, Sharp was staying at home only sporadically, and asked his wife for a divorce, which she didn't want. While still legally married, he became engaged to 35-year-old beautician Jackie Bernabela, who had four children of her own.
On Friday, Nov. 27, 1982, coworker Melvin Binford, whom Sharp calls "Big Man," convinced the reluctant Sharp to play the lottery--only his fourth time ever. "He said, 'You'd better go on and play, because your numbers may come up.' I said, 'I ain't playing no numbers. I ain't going to win nothing no way. I don't think this stuff is real.' " At Binford's incessant urging, Sharp rapidly jotted down four six-number combinations for the $4 card as they came to him; none of them had any significance to birthdays or other important dates in his life.
Two days later, he reported to work as usual and began joking with a coworker about what he would do if he won the lottery. "I called my wife and asked her, 'Barbara, what would you do if you won the lottery? Would you buy me a car?' She said, 'Yeah, I'd buy you a car because you've never had a new car.' I said, 'Would you buy me a house?' She said, 'Naw, I ain't going to buy you no house for you and some other bitch to live in.' We were just laughing and talking."
The next day, a coworker jotted down the winning lottery numbers--1, 2, 9, 16, 34, and 40--from the newspaper and handed them to Sharp. "I said, 'I've got two.' I looked again and said, 'I've got three, four of these numbers.' He said, 'You've got four?' " As Sharp remembers the joy of his beating the nearly 2-million-to-1 odds, his voice gets thinner and higher, and his eyes begin to water. "He looked at the paper and looked at my card. His eyes got so big and sweat started coming out of his head. He started screaming, 'You've got all these numbers!'
"You know how you look at something and can't believe it? I looked at it and said, 'This can't be true. This ain't real.' Sweat started coming off of me. The first thing that ran into my mind was Big Man didn't get the numbers in. This is too good to be true." A quick call to Big Man relieved him of that worry; the excited Binford was getting dressed and was on his way to work with ticket in hand. Coworkers surrounded Sharp and began screaming, although nobody knew yet what the jackpot was, or how many winners with whom it would be shared.
Sharp's first call was to his girlfriend, but her line was busy, so he tried his wife, who thought he was just playing a joke on her after their recent telephone conversation. Still disbelieving, she put their daughter on the phone. "She said, 'Daddy, do you know how much the lottery was in New York?' " he remembers. "I said, 'About $20,000.' She said, 'No Daddy, it's $5 million.' I said, 'Get the hell off the phone! I ain't talking to you!' "
At that moment, a colleague who had simultaneously been on the phone with lottery officials began screaming, "You're a millionaire! You're a millionaire! You won $5 million!" Sharp immediately passed out. "They picked me up, fanned me, and lit a cigarette, and I didn't even smoke," he says. "Everybody just went crazy out there. This white lady happened to pass by and saw all these black folks down there, and she just took off. She thought we were having a riot."
Word spread instantaneously among the company's 3,000 employees as Sharp resumed his monitoring of the building's air conditioning and water. "They were telling me, 'I'd quit my job right now. I'd tell the boss to kiss my so-and-so,' " he remembers. "I said, 'I ain't no kind of person like that.' " The foreman summoned Sharp to his office and asked to see the ticket. "He took the paper and started hitting it on his desk, 'Damn if he didn't do it! Damn if he didn't do it!' " Sharp was granted the day off and took the train in to New York with his girlfriend to verify his win.
New York State Lottery officials offered to send a limousine to carry Sharp to the press conference where he was to receive his check, but he opted instead to rent a Mercury. When he and Bernabela pulled into the parking lot, he discovered that he had no money to park, but the attendant let him in anyway. By the time the duo made their way into the room filled with photographers, they were so late that the lottery official in charge of handing over the check had already left for Albany. The photographers convinced Sharp to pull out both of his pants pockets and hold his hands out. The next day, the photo appeared in newspapers above the caption, "No Dough!"
When Sharp returned later to pick up his check, he wisely accepted the lottery's limo offer and rode over with Bernabela; his wife met them there. Dapperly dressed in a natty, pinstriped three-piece suit and the tan derby hat that was soon to become his trademark, Sharp made quite an entrance, especially with a beautiful woman on each arm. He shocked the press corps as he introduced "my wife Barbara" and "my wife-to-be Jackie."
"As you can see," he said, "I've got a problem." He then explained that he was in the process of getting a divorce and was living with and planning to marry Bernabela. Now, he pointed out, he could afford to.
After receiving his initial check--$238,695 minus 20 percent for taxes--the first thing Sharp did was to reward Melvin Binford's persistence with $10,000 in new $100 bills. Next, he bought his dream car: a $38,000 brown 1983 Cadillac Fleetwood loaded with a Rolls Royce grille, radar, and $5,000 phone. But he kept his old car, a 1971 green station wagon he'd dubbed "Dirty Dog."
To the surprise of many, he also kept his $30,000-a-year job. Since a plant watch operator was required to work a swing-shift of nights and weekends, he asked to be demoted to a lower classification job, taking a $15,000 pay cut to spend more time with his family. "I wanted to retire from my job," he says of his decision, which secured him a $826 monthly pension. "My friends told me I was nuts. Eight years after I won, I retired."
He agreed to give his wife a house and more than $1 million, made in annual payments of $50,000 for 20 years, and establish trust funds for their three children. "I wanted her to have a good life," he says. "We're on very friendly terms. In fact, I borrowed some money from her last year. I always run out."
He bought a $550,000, six-bedroom home in West Orange, N.J., for him and Jackie to live in with her four children. Their engagement became official with a $10,000, 2.5-carat marquis diamond. Feeling that he owed her a great wedding, Sharp spent $100,000 on their 1983 nuptials, which included a horse-drawn carriage, a dozen limos, a $13,000 wedding dress, 31 wedding party members, 1,900 invited guests, and another 2,500 spectators. A kindhearted Sharp allowed in about100 party crashers, at an additional cost of $38 per person.
Along with lottery winner Lou Eisenberg, Sharp became a pitchman for the New York State Lottery--"Don't be chintzy with the mustard!" he exclaimed in TV commercials. He conducted interviews, signed autographs at state fairs and stores, and made public appearances. As he strode down the red carpet at the premiere of the movie Cotton Club, the crowd chanted, "Five Million Dollar Man! Five Million Dollar Man!" Donning his derby, Sharp even strutted his 227-pound body down a catwalk during a 1985 "millionaire's collection" fashion show in New York. He and his new wife flew to Jamaica and cruised to the Bahamas. He hired a secretary to book his appointments and a driver to get him there.
"It was a happy time," he says. "It was like I was the toast of New York. Everywhere I went, I never had to buy booze; people would just buy me stuff. People rubbed me all over. One lady was a bus driver in Albany and she saw us there one day with the TV cameras, jumped off the bus, and had me sign her back.
"[Women] went along with the money. We stopped in this bar, and this white guy and girl were walking in, and she sent him over to ask me if she could go to bed with me. You know I couldn't do nothing like that."
"They really weren't after me, they were after the money."
Did that bother him?
With Sharp's success, though, came envy--and outstretched hands. "When I won, people were going to stores ordering things on me, and they'd let them have it," he recalls. "Some people that we thought were friends weren't really friends. They stopped speaking to us after I won. One girl said [that] me having my wife and girlfriend up there at the same time set back black folks 100 years. But what they don't understand is my wife and I weren't really together, and I wanted her to share in the winnings because she is the mother of my children." With a bleeding heart and an open wallet, Sharp became an easy target for those in dire straits, or those pretending to be in dire straits. He unwittingly exacerbated the situation when he told Reader's Digest that he would help anyone who needed money. So many requests came in from all over the world that the phone company had to hire an operator just to field the hundreds of daily calls, while he hired several women to help him read all the letters that flooded in.
"My lawyer advised me not to even read them," he remembers. One elderly man wanted Sharp to buy a saddle for his horse; another man wanted Sharp to send his daughter to college. One woman showed up daily at his office, asking for money for a room for her and her daughter. Against the wishes of the women working for him, Sharp gave her the money. To his surprise, she returned a week later, asking for more. Sharp called the woman's church secretary, who told him, "We've helped that lady time and time again. She spends all of her money on bingo."
"I had a guy who walked with a limp, and he wanted me to give him money for a house," Sharp says. "These girls that were on the job were investigating people, and we found out this man owned three houses. But here comes ol' softie Curtis.
"My lawyer didn't want me to give nothing to nobody because it's hard to pick. It's best to give it to an organization. People just try to get to you when you are friendly, so you've got to be careful and start screening people, which I don't like doing."
In 1984, he donated $15,000 in goods and traveled to Ethiopia with Sen. Ted Kennedy and Dick Gregory to help victims of the famine. He nearly started a riot when he ignored warnings and gave money to a woman holding a baby in the crowded city streets. That trip marked a turning point in his life. "I had never seen such a sad sight in my life," he says. "The worst slums here can't compare to it over there. It sort of slowed me down some when I got back. It was just the idea that here we are taking so much for granted, and they ain't got nothing."
Perhaps it's not surprising that Sharp never became proficient at money management. His $190,000 checks sometimes ran out, and at times he was in debt after paying his ex-wife, children's trusts, and taxes. Friends reneged on loans, and his Cadillac was stolen at gunpoint. In hindsight, Sharp was wise to have kept his Bell job; often he and his wife needed his Bell Lab salary, because they were spending his lottery checks faster than they were arriving. When his wife lost her job as a beauty consultant, she applied for unemployment.
Sharp admits that he made few investments, and the ones he did make turned out to be bad. Following the advice of Bernabela's attorney in 1982, he invested in an oil company that was designed to be a tax shelter--a move that ultimately cost him more than $200,000. The IRS eventually took him to court, seized his entire 1997 lottery check, and kept more than half of the $75,000 that it owed him. The financial fallout was devastating; Sharp had to borrow against future earnings, and at one point, the phone company shut off his service.
In fact, he's still paying on that loan. Of the four remaining lottery checks still coming to him, only the last two will be untouched by creditors. "I shouldn't have invested in that, but at the time I didn't know any better," he says. "When a person wins the lottery, he should have a good attorney and certified financial planner and somebody to give him sound advice. When you win that type of money, you don't know how to go about spending it, especially when you aren't used to making that type of money."
Except for the fact that he was married and engaged at the same time, many of Sharp's travails are quite common for lottery winners. Half of America's lottery winners are plagued with financial troubles. Perhaps that's because many of these people are never actually millionaires. Sharp never had the $5 million that was the basis for his nickname--he had only 4 percent of that in a given year. Indeed, there are six companies that specialize in lending money to lottery winners. Sharp leveraged his future lottery checks to two such companies. One loan provided Sharp with $100,000 in exchange for three annual $40,000 deductions from future checks. "One of the central myths is once you win the lottery, it solves everything," says Christopher Mogil, director of More Than Money, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to those who earn or inherit sudden wealth. "It solves one whole set of concerns that's really wonderful, like not having to worry about covering the rent, but then it opens up a whole other set of questions that hadn't even occurred to [these people]. If I am surrounded by people struggling with money, how is it going to affect my relationship with them? If I don't have to work for a living...what do I have to do with my life? A lot of people feel that they are suddenly seen as not being human, but a walking credit card."
Mogil says that lottery winners undergo scathing scrutiny, both for the money they spend and the money they lose through bad investments. "You can be judged very positively or negatively, and that can change very quickly. There's the pressure not to make mistakes, to do things that will win others' praises. There's certainly public pressure for conspicuous consumption, and a lot of people fall into that, even though it becomes less and less fun the more you do it."
By 1988, Sharp's second marriage ended, through no fault of his lottery winnings. "She was doing her thing, I was doing mine. I really can't put all of the blame on her, because I was out there too." In March 1984, he'd met Marynell "Cookie" Moody at a bartender's ball in New Jersey. Moody, who worked for the Newark Police Department, was among a group of 20 women who wanted to be photographed with the Five Million Dollar Man. Later, the two became friends, and their relationship grew stronger as his problems mounted. "I could trust her," he says.
Moody assumed the role of caretaker, protecting him from those hoping to take advantage of his kind heart. She encouraged him to make friends sign documents when they borrowed money. "Right here in Nashville, he has loaned a lot of people money, and they have never paid him back," she says. "I guess they think he doesn't need the money, but that's not right. If you go to a bank, you have to pay them back, plus interest. These days, he doesn't have money to be giving away like that."
In 1993, the as-yet unmarried couple moved to Nashville to be near Moody's mother, and the next year Sharp bought a bar in Bordeaux called The Hole for one of his sons to run. Soon after the purchase, however, his son was incarcerated for drug possession; Sharp ran the bar for a year and then just walked away from it. "I was spending more money than I was making," he says. "These are some of the tightest people down here I've ever seen in my life. They don't believe in spending a lot of money, especially when they think you have a lot of money. I used to give stuff away in the tavern."
Sharp's drinking increased, and there were nights he didn't even know how he'd made it home. "He would be sitting out there drunk in the car," Moody says. "I would lock the door, slam it, and leave him there all night. Ain't nothing worse than a drunken man."
In 1996, Sharp began to assess his life. He had achieved the American dream, or had he? While he could go to sleep without worrying about financial matters, money couldn't save his marriage or keep his son out of prison. "One night I was laying in bed, and I got to thinking if I was to die right now, where would I wind up? So I made up my mind right there to give my life to Christ and to be for real, to serve him for real.
"I gave my life to Christ, and then everything came against me. I found out later that's a cleansing process you go through." His worst year was 1997--the year he had his run-in with the IRS --and Sharp believes he would have drunk himself to death if he hadn't found God. "I probably would have cracked up," he says. Instead, he kept things in perspective. Despite his setbacks, he has never changed his views on money: easy come, easy go.
"Money has never meant that much to me, and it still doesn't," he says. "Money was made to be spent here on this earth, because you aren't going to get a chance to spend it somewhere else. What I don't give away, I spend. My ex-wife could tell you that I was more satisfied when I had no money in my pocket than when I had money."
Work, however, remains important to him, whether it's his own or the Lord's. He drives a van part-time for Armada Vans to indulge his love of the road, and he mows a dozen yards a month for the landscaping business he owns with his roommate, who is also a minister. When he's not preaching, he helps to maintain the church's Anderson Road grounds.
"If you aren't active, you begin to get stale," he says. "You get lazy, and you don't want to do nothing. A lot of times, my body doesn't feel like getting up and going to church, but my spirit says, 'You've got to go.' "
Inspired by the biblical books of Romans, Psalms, and Proverbs, he relies just as heavily on personal experience when delivering his sermons. During a sermon that decries cohabitation without marriage, he recalls the wedding at which Jesus turned water into wine. "That was a small wedding compared to mine, but Jesus was invited to it," he says. "Now, at my wedding, Jesus wasn't invited. We had a good time, but because Jesus wasn't at my wedding, five years later, the wine ran out; my marriage broke up."
When Sharp became a minister in 1996, he vowed to remain celibate until he and Moody were married. (They haven't wed yet, because his second divorce still isn't final.) He pays for her comfortable three-bedroom house near Hickory Hollow, as well as his own a few miles away. He owns a 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood, two vans, a Chrysler, and a truck. He's still making the $3,000 payments on his second wife's New Jersey home. And yes, he has played the lottery on occasion whenever he's in Kentucky. "A person shouldn't play their tithe money or money for food or rent," he says. "If you are going to play, play a dollar or two."
While Sharp's relationship with Moody remains strong and comfortable, it has weathered tremendous changes. Gone are the days when she was whisked away in a limo to the Millionaire's Ball. Her fur coats are going into storage, and her only accessories these days are the white streaks of calamine lotion covering the nagging mosquito bites on her legs.
"I'm not saying that because he's saved, we can't have a lot of fun, but we used to really have a lot of fun," Moody says, only to be told that the previous good times were "worldly fun." Moody once scolded Sharp about his drinking; now it's her turn to be chided about the frequency of her church attendance. Sharp was unhappy because she had attended church services only once on a recent Sunday, while he went twice.
What hasn't changed is Moody's quest to ensure Sharp's financial future, and, indirectly, hers as well. "I don't ride him about it, but I've told him he needs to really start investing," she says. Her advice may be falling on deaf ears. "I haven't tried to save a bunch of money to live off in years to come," Sharp says. "I just believe in doing what I can, when I can, with what I've got."
He appears to have no concern about what will happen to him after he receives his last check. "I hope I'm still alive to spend it," he says. "When it runs out, it runs out. I'm saving a little bit; I'll be all right. I have a pension coming in, and if there's Social Security left, I'll be able to draw that in another year. Plus, my trust is in God, so I don't worry about that."
Sharp feels neither embarrassment nor regret over how he has lived his life or handled his money. He has learned that happiness isn't a state that is absent of misery, but despite it. "It's been quite a journey," he says. "There are some things I would change, but I would only change them because I know better now. If I didn't know any better, I would still be enjoying what I enjoyed. Other than that, I wouldn't change a thing."
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