Johnnie Ely often played the lottery, and he played big, shelling out as much as $100 a week. Still, Johnnie Ely could not believe that he, an ordinary cook from the South Bronx, had won the New York State Lottery's biggest prize ever.
Although the lottery drawing for New York Millennium Millions was held on New Year's Eve, Mr. Ely did not claim his bonanza until four days later. "On my way to work on Sunday, I walked by where I bought my tickets and saw the sign: 'We sold the $100 million ticket,' but it just didn't click," Johnnie said yesterday. "On Monday, I heard on the radio that the winner still hadn't claimed the prize. My tickets had been sitting on my kitchen table since Friday and I thought that maybe I should check them."
He did, but still could not believe what was staring him in the face like a hungry hound. So he called his son, who verified that his father's computer-generated numbers -- 8, 23, 38, 39, 46, 14 -- matched the winning numbers. "Next thing I did was a big mistake," Johnnie said, flatly. "I called my wife in and the first thing she asked was, 'Can I retire?' "
He told his wife, Rosemary, a nurse to whom he has been married for 35 years, to clean out her locker.
Without pomp and circumstance, Johnnie, 66, who had been a cook for 20 years, quit his own job on Wednesday. He had the perfect setup: The previous week, his co-workers at the Java Shop, a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, had taken up a collection for a lottery pool. On Wednesday, their manager, Winston Willer, told the workers that he needed to check the tickets they had bought because the winning ticket had been purchased at Garden Check Cashing Service at 250 West 49th Street, down the street from the Java Shop, which is at 49th and Broadway.
"Johnnie said, 'You don't have to check the tickets,'" Winston recalled. "He said, 'I have the winning one.'
"He showed me the evidence -- Xerox copies of the winning ticket. Then he said, 'Can I have some time off? I have to take care of some business.' He didn't finish his shift and he never returned."
One co-worker, Gil Vidal, 62, wished Johnnie well, saying: "He's lucky. We work hard. It's pretty hot in this kitchen."
Johnnie chose to take his winnings in a lump sum -- $44,371,562 -- in lieu of payments over the years that would have equaled $100 million. His take-home prize will be $27 million after taxes, and he will get it in about two weeks, said Margaret R. DeFrancisco, director of the New York Lottery.
Johnnie's predecessor -- that is, the next-richest lottery winner -- is John Falcon, a Manhattan resident who presented a $45 million ticket in October.
Johnnie has always had luck with the lottery, winning $1,300 three or four times and $500 four or five times. He lets the computer choose his numbers, he said, because he has had no luck picking his own.
He said he also planned to help finance the college education of his nieces and nephews. Describing himself as a religious man "but not a fanatic," he said he would pray for continued good health.
Johnnie, who has three grown children and appears to be two decades younger than 66, added that he would continue to "play Lotto and boogie down."
Neighbors near his co-op apartment in the Bronx, which costs $569.70 a month, said they were pleased for Johnnie, who can frequently be seen in a black leather jacket and a black cap. "I'm very happy that somebody I know won," said Adolphus Braithwaite, 65, a retired detective. "Although of course I'm sorry that it's not me."