Ten years later, one of the famed ‘Holdingford Lunch Ladies’ remembers the day she and her co-workers won the lottery
“You can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket.”
Donna Lange has very clear memories of the Sunday when she and her co-workers became instant millionaires. It was 10 years ago, on Oct. 25, 2003, when 15 kitchen staff and one custodian from Holdingford High School in central Minnesota made the news because of their winning Powerball ticket. The 16 women, who became known as the Holdingford Lunch Ladies, split a jackpot of $95 million. The media swarmed the community, anxious to be part of the excitement and to hear the personal stories firsthand.
Lange, whose husband, Al, bought the winning ticket, describes those first few days like being in a dream. There was the initial disbelief, checking and rechecking the numbers, the Sunday afternoon emergency meeting, a bus trip to lottery headquarters in the Twin Cities, phone calls and congratulations, media attention, and so much excitement she had trouble sleeping at night.
In the late 1990s, Lange and her husband moved from Albertville to their lake home to retire. Lange still wanted to work, and she got a job at Holdingford High School. She was an attendance clerk and office assistant, but after five years, her position was cut, so Lange applied for a job in the cafeteria.
The kitchen staff had been pooling their money and buying two Powerball tickets a week for 14 years when Lange was asked if she would take over the job of collecting the money and purchasing the tickets.
“We were paid every other Friday, so everyone contributed a quarter out of their paycheck,” said Lange. “I kept the records. My husband usually bought the tickets because he was retired. He would buy the ticket at Dahlin’s in Avon on Thursday, and I would post it on the bulletin board Friday for the drawing Saturday. I’d check the winning numbers in the Sunday paper and write them on the ticket Monday. That was the routine.”
Lange said her husband always bought one ticket for them, too, and he would toss both tickets on the kitchen table. The Friday before the drawing that put Holdingford on the map, Lange took one of the tickets to post on the bulletin board at school. Just by chance, she wrote the numbers on a scrap of paper to take home at the end of the day, something she had never done before. On that Friday afternoon, she joked with a couple of co-workers saying, “We won’t have to come in to work on Monday because we’re going to win the lottery.”
Sunday morning, Lange got the paper and did a quick check of the numbers, comparing them to those on the ticket on her kitchen table. Then she started doing the crossword puzzle. It wasn’t until later that she remembered that she had written down the numbers from the ticket at school. She fished out the piece of paper and started checking the numbers.
“I think we won the Powerball,” she said to her husband, and then, with excitement in her voice, “No, I think we won the big money!” She read the numbers again and asked her husband to check them too.
Lange contacted her supervisor, and they decided to meet at school to be certain they had the winning ticket. “When we got to school, my supervisor went on the Internet and by then we knew that there was another winner in Indiana and that the jackpot was for over 190 million dollars.”
They called in all the staff for a Sunday afternoon meeting to tell them the news. Lange remembers bewildered members of the group accusing her and her supervisor of not telling the truth! There were moments of confusion, anxiety and elation as each person absorbed the news. Plans were made for the next day, and the ticket was locked up in a safe overnight.
“I would never have thought of locking it up,” Lange said with a laugh. “I probably would have brought the ticket home and slept on it.”
She contacted the lottery office on Monday, and the group was told to report to St. Paul the next day. It was Lange’s idea to hire a charter bus to transport them all.
“We were all so excited, I didn’t think any of us should be driving,” she said. “When we left school after work the next day, it was about 2:30. As we walked out the door to get on the bus, the high school band played, giving us a special send-off. That was neat.”
She remembers the group showing up at the lottery office late Tuesday and being seated in a large room. The media were there too, to capture all the huge smiles and laughter. Lange had the envelope with the winning ticket, and when she handed it to the official, he was surprised when he noticed she hadn’t signed it.
“That’s the first thing you should have done,” he said. They waited nearly an hour for everything to be checked out and to hear the words, “Congratulations. You are winners.” While they waited, a newspaper reporter leaned over and asked Lange if she had ever thought of switching the tickets. “Not until you mentioned it just now,” Lange laughed. “I was just so happy we all won.”
The next few days, the “Lunch Ladies” were bombarded with media attention, including an appearance on Good Morning America. The school and community were very supportive. “A popular joke at school,” Lange said, “was somebody coming up and asking me, ‘You got my quarter, didn’t you?’ For a few weeks, the mailman brought our mail right to the house.” The mail contained both congratulations and solicitations.
Lange’s husband took winning the lottery all in stride. He said, “It’s your thing,” although she insisted they could not have won without him. After all, they were all at work when he bought the winning ticket.
Ten years have passed since the Holdingford Lunch Ladies made the national news. Lange retired shortly afterward, and a few others have retired since then. She knows a few of the women are still working at the school, and some have moved on. One woman, who declined to be named, said she continues to work for the school district because she loves her job and she couldn’t imagine not doing anything.
“Everyone in our group was level-headed and conservative,” Lange said. “We used to get together for the first three years, and I thought it would be nice to meet again this year, because it’s the 10th anniversary.” But she doubts there will be a reunion this fall. “It’s not a priority.”
It sometimes seems to her that winning the lottery never happened. “But it did make retirement much less stressful, and it allowed me to be more generous with people in need,” said Lange. “If we had not won, we would still be living at the lake home. It was nice, and I was content there, but winning allowed us to move closer to our children and to build a handicap accessible home.” Lange’s husband had begun having health problems and difficulty with stairs. He died in 2007.
Lange doesn’t buy lottery tickets often, but she goes to the casino occasionally. She is an avid reader, reading a book nearly every week. She also enjoys crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles and needlework. She has never enjoyed traveling much, preferring to spend time with friends and her family, including two grandchildren.
In May, Lange celebrated her 75th birthday by requesting no gifts, but donations would be welcome for the local food shelf. The Clearwater/Clear Lake Food Shelf received 195 pounds of food and over $300 in cash in her honor.
As the 10th anniversary of winning the lottery approaches, Lange thinks the whole experience seems unreal. “Life went on. It didn’t change me. It made my life easier, but beyond that, my friends tell me I’m the same old Donna and that’s what I want to be.” She smiles.
Lemke got a lot of publicity for punching the winning ticket, and the store was briefly featured on CNN, according to Dahlin. Today, there’s hardly a sign of all the hoopla that surrounded the store 10 years ago. There’s only a newspaper article, yellow with age, from the Stearns-Morrison Enterprise (now the Albany Enterprise) with photos of the three of them taped to a wall at the back of the store.