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Life gets back to normal for lottery winners in Roseau County

Debbie Kujava of Ross, Minn., opted for a used 2013 Chevy Silverado pickup to pull the camper she bought after winning the Lotto America jackpot in March. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 1 / 2
Debbie Kujava and her brother, Dennis (right), relax on the porch of Dennis' home near Ross, Minn., on a recent May afternoon. The siblings are adjusting to their lives as new millionaires after Debbie won the Lotto America jackpot in March with a ticket she bought at the Holiday station in Roseau, Minn. She split the winnings with Dennis, who in turn shared his portion of the prize money with his two daughters. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald) 2 / 2

ROSS, Minn.—Two months after winning the lottery, Debbie Kujava and her brother, Dennis Kujava, are adjusting to their new lives as millionaires.

The winning Lotto America ticket Debbie bought as part of a Jackpot Bundle on Tuesday, March 13, at Holiday Stationstores in Roseau, Minn., was worth $22.8 million, and the $13.5 million cash option she chose was whittled down to $9.4 million after the required tax withholding.

The odds of winning were about 1 in 24 million, Debbie Kujava says. She kept it quiet until March 19, when Lotto America made it official.

News that the winning ticket had come from the Roseau Holiday had been the talk of the town for several days.

"I asked (co-workers), 'Do you know who won?'" she recalls with a laugh. "They were like, 'Just watch, it will be some rich person who's driving through town and they stopped and bought a ticket.'

"I said yes, you never know, but I guess we're going to find out."

The siblings had a pact to share the winnings if they ever won the lottery, so Debbie split the proceeds with Dennis, who in turn shared his portion with daughters Deanna and Denise.

Amid much hoopla, the Kujavas received their money in late March at Minnesota Lottery headquarters in Roseville, Minn.

By state law, they weren't allowed to stay anonymous.

"Like I told them down in the Cities, I said I can't use all that money, not at my age," Dennis, 66, said. "I wouldn't even try. So, that's why I split it up. I figured it will give them a good start in life, and if they don't make it now, they never will."

A new normal

In some ways, it's business as usual for the two siblings—no strangers to hard work their entire lives—who live just down the road from each other near Ross in rural Roseau County. Debbie, 57, retired from her job of nearly 40 years as an LPN at Lifecare Manor in Roseau after winning the lottery, and Dennis four years ago retired from Polaris in Roseau, where he worked more than 19 years.

The Kujavas have bought some new "toys" and will donate to a number of local charities, but the signs of their new financial status are far from conspicuous.

"Nothing, for me," Dennis says of how the windfall changed his life. "The only thing I've been buying is farm machinery now."

Dennis can claim the machinery, including a used Case IH tractor he'd purchased the previous day, as a tax write-off to offset the impact of the higher tax bracket in which the Kujavas now find themselves.

"It's something I can use here" on the farm, he said.

In other ways, their new financial status has resulted in changes none of them could have fathomed mere weeks ago. Debbie completed the three, 12-hour nursing home shifts she was scheduled to work before winning the lottery, and Denise Kujava, 34, quit her job at Polaris.

Dennis' daughter Deanna, 40, now lives in New Jersey, a move she'd planned to make anyway.

"We can't work—we'd be working for nothing," Debbie said. "But when people out there think, 'Oh my God, they won $22.8 million,' it's more like $6 million or $7 million."

Income taxes for 2018 will further carve into the winnings, but the Kujavas are set for the foreseeable future.

"We're not complaining about it—it changed our lives," Debbie says; paying off a sea of bills was her first priority.

"I'm more relaxed now," she said. "I feel that I'm back to my normal self. I was a nervous wreck trying to keep ahead of bills. I was getting behind on credit cards. But yeah, now I feel back to normal."

Crazy few weeks

Life has been a blur since winning the lottery, Debbie says. The first week, which included on-camera interviews and two trips to Minnesota Lottery headquarters—where they even had bodyguards—were especially stressful, she says.

Dennis laughs at the memory.

"She was so darn nervous when we got down there that she had to have a cigarette outside (headquarters) before we went in," he said.

They have received "thousands" of text messages, phone calls and Facebook greetings from people offering congratulations, she says. People from across the region often recognize them when they stop at convenience stores or other public places.

"I bet I still get three, four, five phone calls a day," Dennis said.

There also have been a few unpleasant encounters, Debbie says, including a woman who repeatedly harassed her on Facebook Messenger asking for $25,000 to pay for medical bills.

"I've got got lots of people asking for stuff, but this one lady, I was getting phone calls on Messenger, and I just didn't answer them," Debbie Kujava said.

Eventually, Debbie's niece, Deanna, set up a block to prevent further calls from the woman.

"It was, 'poor woe is me,' but you can't believe everything, either," Debbie said. "It could be true. Maybe it is, maybe it's not."

The Kujavas, who are working with a financial adviser in Roseau to help them manage their winnings, say they're planning several donations, including the purchase of two wheelchair-accessible trailers a local company is manufacturing for residents of the nursing home where Debbie worked. They also plan donations to the Trails for Treatments nonprofit in Middle River, Minn., which provides funding for cancer patients, along with donations to nearby Concordia Lutheran Church and a local outdoor hockey rink.

New vehicles

Besides paying off her debts, Debbie bought a 2017 holdover Corvette—"I wasn't going to mention that," she laughed—and a camper she'll use for weekend excursions and family functions, such as an annual family get-together Memorial Day weekend at Lake Bronson State Park.

She passed on buying a decked-out $140,000 motorhome with granite countertops and hardwood cabinetry, even though she now can afford it.

"I walked through it, and I was like, 'Oh my God, this is a dream,' but it's not realistic, it's not me," she said. "So off I go to the little ones. It has a little bathroom with a shower, and I have a full-size couch that folds into a bed and a queen bed on the one side in the back. It's all I need.

"Now, I don't have to bunk up with anybody. I have my own spot. I can lock that door, sleep as long as I want and nobody can bug me."

She bought a used 2013 Chevy Silverado 4x4 pickup to pull the camper. "Not one scratch, and I got a good deal," she said of the truck, which had 36,000 actual miles and looked like brand new.

Dennis bought a 2018 Chevy 4x4 truck, taking out a loan even though he could have paid cash without blinking. That way, the bank gets some benefit, he says.

"Why not?" he said. "To me, it don't matter. The interest I'm paying out they'd take out in taxes anyway. So they make money, too."

No big changes

Despite their new wealth, the Kujavas say their friends don't treat them any differently.

"That's one nice thing about living in a smaller community," Dennis said. "You don't get harassed like you would in a bigger town, I don't think."

As the frenzy subsides and life settles into a new normal, the Kujavas say they don't have any plans to travel the world. Besides the upcoming trip to Lake Bronson, they plan to visit family in Michigan this summer—"now I don't even have to worry about money when we go," Debbie says—and she's planning to take in Moondance Jam, the classic rock gathering near Walker, Minn., in July.

Winter excursions to visit friends in Arizona or perhaps a trip to Alaska also are possibilities on the horizon.

Nothing extravagant, in other words, and nothing like the grandiose, "Gone with the Wind"-style mansion Debbie says she once dreamed of owning if she struck it rich.

"Dreams change with age," she said. "What you wanted years ago is totally different than what you want now. I want somebody else to clean up after me. That's what motels are for."

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken is a reporter and editor of the Herald's Sunday Northland Outdoors pages. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998.  A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 

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