Reversal of Fortune

Forty-two residents of the struggling cotton-farming town of Roby band together to enter the lottery. They buy 430 tickets. Then—on the eve of Thanksgiving, no less—they hit the jackpot, winning $46 million. You might expect a happy ending. Not even close.

LANCE GREEN HATES FEELING LONELY, and Roby, the West Texas town where he has lived all his life, is a lonely sort of place. On the empty stretch of U.S. Highway 180 that runs through town, most of the mom-and-pop stores have gone broke. Weeds poke through the cracked windows of the Oasis Motel, and the Boll Weevil Cafe, which is vacant, wears the same “For Sale” sign it has for years. At the boarded-up movie house, where the last film played in 1955, a poster of High Noon still hangs below the old marquee; Gary Cooper keeps watch, as he has for an eternity, over the deserted courthouse square. Sometimes Lance will glance down the highway, past the blinking red stoplight, and realize that his pickup is the only car on the road.

Lance stood outside the break room of the cotton gin one morning this summer, wearing a beat-up gimme cap, jeans, a work shirt, boots, and a bittersweet grin. The sky was clear and blue, and the hot temperature, coming right after a hard rain, he said, was good for growing cotton. Lance has short-cropped brown hair, blue eyes, and an easy manner, and he is well liked around town; in high school, which he still talks about a little wistfully, he was the star running back for the Roby Lions and was named Class Favorite his senior year. “I hope that in future years you widen your horizons and leave Roby,” a girl wrote in his high school yearbook, The Tumbleweed, nineteen years ago, but he never has. He became the mayor of Roby at 31—the youngest in the town’s history—and at 37, many of his constituents still call him “a good kid.” His monthly mayoral salary of $35 doesn’t go far, so most days he manages Terry’s Gin, one block east of the courthouse square, and he pours concrete and sells tombstones on the side. That morning he looked out at the meager view that the town afforded, which was beautiful to him. “Everything a man could ever want is right here,” he said. “Besides, where else would I go?”

Lance had hoped for a different future for Roby when, on Thanksgiving Day, 1996, his hometown suddenly became the focus of international attention. The previous day, a group of Roby farmers had pooled their money at the cotton gin to buy lottery tickets, and, improbably, in the middle of a drought that was forcing some of them to file for bankruptcy, they had won the $46 million prize. “A Little Town in Texas Hits the Jackpot,” “Cotton Town Baled Out by Mega Bucks,” and “Texas Town of 600 Suddenly Has 43 Millionaires,” read the headlines. One TV newsman noted that the town of Roby had “more millionaires per capita than the Kingdom of Brunei.” Film crews from as far as Japan and Germany trained their cameras on Roby’s weathered farmers, asking them when they planned on buying their wives Cadillacs and diamond rings, and Hollywood came calling, offering cash for the rights to their life stories. In nearby Sweetwater, car salesmen hurried out of their showrooms to shake hands with prospective buyers who were rumored to be part of the “Roby 43.” When one family went to the Fort Worth livestock show wearing jackets with “Roby” printed on them, strangers approached wanting to touch them for good luck.

The lottery was the biggest thing that had happened in Roby since Bob Terry, on a whim, flew his crop-dusting plane under the blinking red stoplight and right over a state trooper’s patrol car, in 1968. But once the lottery winners drew their first checks and the media circus subsided, nothing much changed. Roby continued its slow decline, the drought wore on, and more than half a dozen businesses went under. The ceremonial check from the Texas Lottery Commission for $46,661,981.13 still hangs, half forgotten, in a corner of the Circle D convenience store—the only evidence that Roby was lucky once. Among the customers who trickle into Wynelle’s Beauty Shop and the Silver Star Cafe, the conversation centers, as it always has, on the vagaries of the weather. The lottery is a sore subject; for each winner in town who came out ahead, another was visited by inexplicable misfortune. Lance was one of Roby’s instant millionaires, and he has had his share of heartache over it. As we talked, he studied the empty town before him and said, “For all the trouble the lottery brought on me, I don’t know whether to be happy I won or sorry I didn’t.”

BEFORE HEADING TO THE COTTON fields each morning, farmers meet just after dawn at Grace’s, a quiet diner on Highway 180 where western music plays on the radio and the deep fryer gurgles in the background. The Breakfast Club, as its members call themselves, includes a dozen or so men in their fifties and sixties who, over plates of biscuits and gravy, talk shop and chortle at one another’s old jokes, occasionally glancing through the cafe’s picture window, searching the sky for rain. This summer the conversation invariably drifted toward the latest health update of a man named Gene Shipp, who had been attacked by a swarm of bees and stung more than two hundred times before having two heart attacks at the hospital. “A damn shame,” the farmers said, shaking their heads. At eight o’clock each morning, they take their last swigs of black coffee, slide on their hats, and head for the door. “How many people do you know who’ve been doing the same job for fifty years and still work every day?” Mike Terry asked me one morning as he rose from one of the Naugahyde booths to go check on his cotton. “We’re still doing it, and I guess we’ll do it till the day we die, because when you’re a cotton farmer, that’s how long it takes to get out of debt.”

The men at Grace’s remember a different Roby, a Roby where cotton was

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