When Wally Markham heard that he might have just won $7.5 million, he was playing cards at Smitty's, a dingy sports bar in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, that has hockey sticks on the walls and dollar bills tacked to the ceiling. The phone call came from Markham's neighbor, Craig McIntyre, who had heard on the news that the winning ticket in that week's Hot Lotto Sizzler had been purchased at the Kwik Stop on Texas Street, the same convenience store where Markham had been buying lotto tickets for years.
"Well, okay," Markham said nonchalantly. "I'll check the numbers when I get home."
Markham finished his game and bid his farewells. When he arrived at his house, he called McIntyre, who had located the six winning numbers in the Sunday paper.
McIntyre read. Markham listened.
Markham said nothing.
"So, Wally, how'd you fare?!"
"I won," Markham said flatly.
"That's all you're going to say? You won?"
If McIntyre had hoped for a more animated reaction, he needed to find another jackpot winner. Markham, who retired in 2001 after 36 hardworking years at the John Deere plant in Waterloo, has never been the type to do cartwheels on the lawn.
Four days later, Markham, then 65, and his girlfriend, Vicky Lindquist, drove two hours west to Des Moines to validate his winning ticket at the Iowa Lottery headquarters. Officials ushered the couple into a room where Markham answered a litany of questions.
"What did you buy that day?" an official asked.
Markham rattled off the lotto tickets he had bought -- 22 in all.
"No, you bought something else," the official said.
"Oh, two 30-packs of Busch Light," Markham replied.
"They knew everything," Markham says now. "My address, my phone number, what I bought that day. They knew everything about me."
Well, not quite everything. At least one question remained unanswered: what Markham would do with his windfall.
La Porte City Golf Club, a hilly nine-holer flanked by cornfields 15 miles south of Waterloo, had never been flush with cash; it's tough to turn a profit when green fees start at $11 and six beers in a cooler are just a buck more. But since opening in 1927, the quirky layout with an oak tree in the middle of the sixth fairway had been a popular hangout in the city of La Porte (pop. 2,293). Even in hard times, the club had always managed to stay afloat.
That started to change in 2008 when a devastating flood ravaged much of eastern Iowa, submerging the course under so much mucky water that some flagsticks were barely visible. The swell took weeks to recede and the saturated layout didn't reopen until the fall, putting a serious strain on the club's coffers. Several months later, the club weathered another financial blow when a construction project on the road next to the property forced would-be golfers on a five-mile detour to access the parking lot. Some golfers stayed home. Others played elsewhere.
The reeling economy didn't help matters either. "It was getting to be a run-down club," says club manager Nancy Riley. "People were falling back on memberships and didn't really want to come out.
"It was almost like we had to have people buy beer before we could order the beer to get it in here. Even for basic supplies, we had to rob Peter to pay Paul."
Riley multitasked as best she could, occasionally hopping on a riding mower to cut the grass outside the clubhouse, which needed countless upgrades of its own. Some of La Porte's retiree members pitched in, trimming a tree here, mending a leaky toilet there. "Every time they'd come out, someone would say, 'Oh, can you fix this?' " Riley says. "They stopped coming. It just wasn't fun."
Bartenders were scolded for pouring too stiff a drink. The rickety maintenance equipment constantly required repairs. Board meetings devolved into squabbles. "No money and bills, bills, bills," says 87-year-old Wilbur Engelkes, a retired high school a member at La Porte since 1966, when the course had sand greens. "It couldn't have been any fun at all to be on that board of directors."
It wasn't much fun at the club, period. "There were so many times I'd come out here and I'd be out on the course by myself," says Craig Richmond, another longtime member. "It was like my own private country club."
But not in a good way. Empty tee sheets. Fierce infighting. Crippling debt.
La Porte City Golf Club was dying.
Markham is as rooted to Iowa as its cornstalks. He was born in Cedar Rapids, spent some time in Dubuque, then moved to Waterloo when his father opened a fast-food joint called Chicken on Wheels. Wally attended West Waterloo High School, where he was a star wrestler, then took a job shoveling sand in the foundry at the Deere plant, launching a career that would span nearly four decades.
When he joined La Porte City Golf Club in 1990, Markham wasn't much of a golfer.("Wasn't worth a s--- then," he says, "and I'm not worth a s--- now.") But he adored the game. He had two children from a marriage that didn't last, including a son, Adam, who had Down syndrome and died in 1992 at age 20. During the last couple years of Adam's life, father and son spent many happy hours together on the fairways of La Porte.
"Adam loved golf, really loved it," Markham says. "He wasn't a good player, but we were out in the fresh air and we'd drive around in the cart -- matter of fact, he even got to drive the cart. That was a big deal for him.
"And then all of a sudden he started getting really sick..."
Markham's eyes well up. He grows quiet. He says no more.