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‘We won’t change’ - Tonya and Bobby Harris, Portal’s Mega Millions couple

Outside perceptions don’t bother ‘country’ folk

‘We won’t change’ - Tonya and Bobby Harris, Portal’s Mega Millions couple

‘We won’t change’ - Tonya and Bobby Harris, Portal’s Mega Millions couple

Tonya and Bobby Harris talk about win...


    After Tonya and Robert Harris won the Mega Millions jackpot of $275 million, the jokes came out of the woodwork.
    Cracks about their mobile home - which many called a trailer - followed by more jokes about the tiny rural town of Portal, where the couple live.
    Tonya Harris wore flip flops and warm-up pants when the couple claimed their prize last Monday. Robert Harris was shown in all the media photos without a smile. Everywhere, comments flew about the self-proclaimed country couple, and they weren't all complimentary.
    And they don't care.
    He was a steel worker who commuted to Atlanta biweekly in a raggedy company truck patched with duct tape. She was a housewife who enjoyed life in the rural subdivision comprised mostly of mobile homes, although her husband stayed out of town working two weeks at a time.
    But trailer trash, they weren't, in spite of some unkind jokes from national figures trying to "cash in" on their notoriety.
    When you're low-income and live in a small town, especially when you live in a "trailer," the magical fairy tale of rags to riches is more spectacular when you're the holder of the winning  ticket.
     But now, after accepting the cash option of $167 million, Robert Harris doesn't have to work. He even traded his old company work truck for a brand new Ford F250.
    Tonya, however, hasn't quite decided what she wants. She is still having trouble making the transition from frugal to pretty much buying what she wants.
    A bleary-eyed Robert Harris opened the door to his home at 6 a.m. Wednesday. The lights weren't even on inside yet. "She's just now getting up," he said, referring to Tonya.
    It was the couple's idea to hold what they hoped was the "last interview" early that morning before taking off to an undisclosed location for some peace and quiet.
    The phone calls, the uninvited visitors, the contractors and vehicle dealers stopping by to solicit business, the requests from long-lost "friends" asking for money - the piles of mail and paperwork and correspondence that was left at their front door by UPS - it had become overwhelming to the couple accustomed to quiet country living.
    
How it all began
    The tired pair were on their way home that lucky Friday when something made Robert Harris decide to buy a lottery ticket. He told Tonya to use their grandchildren's birth dates, and lo and behold - they were the winning numbers.
    The next morning Harris was on his way into town when his stepdaughter met him on the highway with the news.
    "They topped the hill .... handed me a ticket (showing the winning numbers) and I didn't even look at my wallet," he said. "I knew what I'd played. I sat on the side of the road and cried."
    Tonya Harris walked into her immaculate but spartan living room for the interview wearing a Carharrt sweatshirt. Offering coffee to visitors, she walked into her small kitchen and began making a cup.  
    "I didn't believe it," she said, recalling the moment when she heard  the news. "I reckon it sunk in when we turned in the ticket. I still don't believe it. How do you believe something like that?"
    "Just knowing you could do anything you wanted to do for the rest of your life ... going out of town to work all this time and  then you know you don't have to  go back ..." Bobby Harris' voice trailed off as he looked at his wife. "And I turned around and went home and handed her the ticket, and it didn't even phase her."
    But it's sinking in. After Robert bought his new truck, they went home and "Hello, I'm a millionaire!" she said. Recalling how she felt when the lottery officials in Atlanta were confirming that their ticket was legitimate, she said "It was the longest 15 minutes of my life."
    However, realizing that they are actually millionaires might take a little while, she said.
    The couple immediately sought legal advice, and while they were discussing plans with their attorneys, the subject of buying their 16-year-old granddaughter a car arose.
    They were talking about putting the teen on their insurance, and Tonya said "Wait a minute. I don't know if we can afford that," she said. The lawyers just looked at her and laughed. "They told me they didn't think I had to worry about that."

Not going to change
    The Harrises plan to build a log cabin somewhere near Portal, but they say the money won't change who they are.
    A few days after winning the big money, Tonya went to Portal's only grocery store, Lanier's IGA, to buy drinks and laundry detergent and figured it was normal. But some at the store asked her what in the world she was doing.
    "One of them told me I ought to have somebody do my laundry," she said. "I said, 'for what? I can still wash my own clothes.'"
    She's been quoted by national media as saying "I'm too country to change." And it is obvious she means it.
    "How do you change after all these years?" the 55-year-old said. "If I was younger, things might be different. I'm set in my ways. I reckon that's just me."
    "I can change," Robert said. "Change from working to not working."
    He's ecstatic to know he can enjoy his grandchildren now instead of working all the time. Being away from home for two weeks at the time because he could not afford the commute, often selling scrap iron for extra cash, he is looking forward to relaxing and appreciating life.
    He won't change much, however. "I don't believe I will. I've never liked being around a lot of people, and the main thing for me is not having to worry anymore. My mind can rest now. I just don't believe I'll change."
    "When you're used to a certain way of life, it's hard to change," Tonya said.
    "We're perfectly happy grilling a steak on our George Foreman grill, with a baked potato," Robert said, scoffing at those who spend $500 on a meal.
    "We are the kind of people who get excited and happy when income tax time comes," she said. "That's how normal we are. We paid our bills and buy groceries just like everybody else. There have been times we didn't know where our next dollar came from."
    And the cracks about living in a trailer and being lower income?
    "I don't care," Robert Harris said. Tonya echoed his sentiments. "It don't bother me. You're going to get a lot of that and it doesn't bother us at all."
    
Plain ol' country folks
    People around Portal are glad the Harrises won the lottery. It "put Portal on the map," said Mayor Larry Motes.
    IGA owner Larry Lanier said the couple are "just common working people" who have been his customers for years. "They still are (his customers,)," he said.
    He didn't think anything about the new millionaires walking into his store to buy laundry detergent the day after their win became national news.
    Tonya explained to him they had not received their money yet, and she had spent all her cash. "I told her I'd hold a bad check on her,"he said.
    But Lanier and others are concerned for the Harrises.
    "They're going to have a lot more problems than they've ever had in their lives," he said, referring to people hounding them for a piece of their winnings.
    "I think they need quiet and peace," Motes said. "I think they need a break."
    He hopes the Harris couple does remain in the area and "maybe invest in the town," he said. "It is good that somebody who works hard like they do won like that."
    Danny Jones, who has known Tonya " for years," said he can't see her changing.
    "She's a good ol' country girl," he said. "She said she will be glad when it winds down, that it (the attention) is not her. She's not into all that - she just wants to be like she always was - a country girl."
    But life won't be the same for the Harrises, and not for Portal either, at least for a while.
    "It put it on the map, didn't it?" Jones said, adding that he spoke to two men recently who stopped at a Portal restaurant on their way from Savannah to Atlanta.
    No, Portal isn't actually on the way, but "they just wanted to see where the lottery winners are from," he said.

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