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Chet Brokaw, Associated Press Writer, Published June 06 2009

South Dakota rancher lassos lottery, plans to return favors to community

PIERRE, S.D. – A 23-year-old South Dakota rancher whose family has bought and sold scrap metal to make it through tough times claimed a $232.1 million Powerball prize Friday, the ninth-largest jackpot ever won in the multistate lottery game.

Neal Wanless works with his parents on the 320-acre family ranch about 11 miles east of Mission in Todd County, an area of rolling green pastures, grazing cattle, fields of crops – and some of the deepest poverty in the nation.

The prize was from the May 27 drawing. At a ceremony Friday, Wanless thanked everyone for being patient, saying he had a lot to think about after winning the jackpot. He says he talked with his family and his advisers and will be happy to answer questions later.

“At this point, however, I need some time to let this sink in.” he said. “I want to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with this great fortune. I will not squander it. I was born in Winner (S.D.), grew up in central South Dakota, graduated from Todd County High School and intend to help those who need it most. My family has been helped by the community, and I intend to repay that help many times over.”

Wanless said he wants to continue ranching but might do so on a little bigger ranch of his own.

Wanless and his parents, Arlen and Nancy, had not made any public statements since winning the jackpot in the May 27 drawing, but word spread quickly in the area that the family had won. Friends and neighbors described them as a family that has worked hard but had little money, losing their mobile home when it was repossessed last year and owing back property taxes on the ranch.

“They are all good, hardworking people. I hope they enjoy their money,” said Cathy Vrbka, a family friend and the county assessor. “They work hard, backbreaking hard work.”

Dave Assman, an owner of a local farm implement dealership who also owns farm land next to the Wanless family, said he is happy that money will no longer be a problem for them.

“They’ve been real short on finances for a long time,” Assman said. “They are from real meager means, I guess you’d say.”

The lottery ticket is worth $232.1 million if taken in annual payments over three decades, but Wanless chose to receive the jackpot as a one-time cash prize of just slightly more than $118 million. After federal taxes are withheld, he will receive a payment of $88.5 million.

Wanless and his parents bought the winning ticket May 26 during a 35-mile trip to Winner to pick up a load of livestock feed. They usually bought $3 in Powerball tickets but bought $15 in tickets that day because of the size of the jackpot. The winning numbers represent the day and month of Wanless’ birthday and birthdays of his brother and grandfather.

Wanless said he was shocked when he checked the ticket the day after the drawing and discovered he had won. He said he has kept busy on the family ranch in the past week because a hay baler had to be fixed, a tractor had to be picked up from a repair shop and other work needed to be done.

And Wanless has dreamed of ranching on a bigger spread. He said he recently told his horse, Eleanor, that “It’d be nice if we go for a longer ride than usual on a bigger ranch of our own.”

Wanless graduated from high school in 2004 as salutatorian, second in his class of 64 students. He has an older brother, James.

Doris Haveman, who works at Klein School, the country school Wanless attended from kindergarten through eighth grade, said he went to college but eventually returned home to the ranch.

“He was a very likable student,” Haveman said. He was a well-behaved kid, very well-behaved.”

After graduating, Neal Wanless went to college, though Haveman didn’t know where, but eventually returned to the home place. “He went to school for a while but came back to his folks.”

She said the family was very private.

The Wanless ranch home is in a grove of trees on the east side of Todd County, ranked the seventh-poorest county in the nation in 2007 U.S. Census Bureau figures. Much of the county is tribal land governed by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Deeded land like the Wanless ranch is under the legal jurisdiction of the state.

The family has raised cattle, sheep and horses on the ranch, which covers a half-square-mile, small in comparison to most operations in the area.

Winner: Neal Wanless, 23

What he won: $232.1 million

What he opted for: $88.5 million, as a one-time cash prize after federal taxes

Quote: “I want to thank the Lord for giving me this opportunity and blessing me with this great fortune. I will not squander it.”

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