A Change of Heart
updated 02/03/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/03/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST
Two years ago, Wayne, 44, who ran a bedspread-and-drapery shop in Erie, was the toast of his hometown after he won $9.6 million in the Pennsylvania Lotto. "I was just another guy with an impossible dream," he says. "But it came true. Now I'm in Moscow with another dream." Wayne's daunting mission: to help save Russia and its sister republics.
Wayne wasn't always so ambitious. Before his Lotto win, the struggling businessman lived in a small apartment and drove a leased van. A big night out meant treating himself to watching his favorite NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, on the big-screen TV at a local tavern. Then, on Feb. 6, 1990, he hit the jackpot. "I should have known something was going to happen," he says, "because I drove through a rainstorm and awful traffic to buy that ticket. Then when I saw I won, I couldn't believe it. I just stared at the ticket. Then I started screaming and calling everybody I knew."
Afterward, Wayne stopped working almost at once, got rid of his apartment and bought two spacious homes—one in Erie, the other in Florida—a white 300ZX Nissan and a customized 1934 Ford. He also took a Caribbean cruise, began refurbishing a 42-foot cabin cruiser and last year got married to "prelottery" girlfriend Linda Belcher, an interior decorator.
But two months ago, Wayne's carefree lifestyle changed. Though he had grown up hating the Soviet Union—his Polish-born grandparents detested the satellite Communist regime in their native land—he was struck by something he saw on TV footage about the crisis in Russia. "There was this old man standing in a line, fighting for a little bag of butter," he recalls. "It was like he was grabbing for his life." Haunted by the image, Wayne decided to use some of his yearly $365,000 after-tax lottery earnings, paid out over 20 years, to help the situation. "If we don't lift a finger," he says, "there could be rioting in the streets. It could be very explosive."
Like a homespun Don Quixote tilling at the windmills of hunger and economic ruin, he recently gave $100.000 to charter two relief flights of food and medicine bound for Moscow. Describing himself as a "baby boomer with a cause," Wayne hopes his example will spur more donations nationwide from baby boomers and other Americans. (In its first weeks, his televised appeal for aid, which has been channeled through AmeriCares, a New Canaan, Conn., nonprofit relief group, has so far raised more than $5,000.) "It's time to turn old enemies into friends and customers," he says. "I know things are tough at home, and we shouldn't forget to help our own needy. But I figure if just 10 percent of my generation gives $5 each, we could raise $35 million to help get them back on their feet, get them into a market economy."
Before arriving at the Chekmariovs' apartment during his two days in Moscow, Wayne visited hospitals and various government agencies, then pitched in to unload relief goods from trucks at various destinations. On his rounds, he heard about the shortages of such common supplies as antibiotics, bandages and syringes. On the streets with an interpreter, he also listened to accounts of pilfering, hoarding and black-market profiteering—and to endless complaints about the soaring prices of food. "Now that communism is dead," says Wayne, "I'd like them to see that America's a very giving country, that we're not all a bunch of capitalists and that we don't just care about ourselves."
Although Wayne knows the U.S. government has earmarked $165 million in food relief for Russia and that other private groups are sending aid, he believes individual Americans can give more. "Russians are tough and proud," he says, "but they really appreciate what we're doing. Everyone knows the handouts are temporary. But the help is heart-to-heart. They won't forget."
Over a lunch of borscht, sausage and smoked fish, Wayne tells Vladimir and Irina—whom he met through AmeriCares—that he has come to Moscow on a chartered DC-8 cargo plane loaded with 75,000 pounds of medicine and other items, such as soap and baby formula. (Two weeks earlier, he accompanied 214,000 pounds of similar supplies, all donated by U.S. firms.) "Wonderful!" says Irina, a government food inspector who is expecting her second child in March. "Like so many things, this we need." After some probing, Vladimir admits that today's generous lunch cost about half of the family's 800-ruble monthly income. Fortunately, Vladimir explains, they pay only 14 rubles a month to rent their cramped but neatly furnished one-bedroom apartment.
"When food costs so much, then hunger will soon make people creative," Vladimir says. "They will find different ways to survive, and this is dangerous. But we already taste new life. Now we must be patient, six months, maybe one year. I don't trust new leaders because they come from old regime. But we have no choice. We cannot go back to old ways."
After the meal, Irina emerges from the kitchen with three trays of pastries she has baked herself. To Wayne, it seems almost like home, especially before he hit the Lotto jackpot. A divorced father of two daughters—Michelle, 22, and Renée, 19—he had shared a $265-a-month apartment in Erie with Renée, a high school senior. Wayne himself never went to college and had spent nearly his whole life in Erie except for Air Force duty in Nebraska and for a brief time in Florida selling home furnishings. Now he and Linda, who has two sons and a daughter from a previous marriage—Brian, 11, Patrick, 15, and Michele, 19—spend half the year at their new Boca Raton, Fla., home next to the 18th tee of a golf course. "She loved me when I was poor," says Wayne, who says he got letters and calls from dozens of women after his win. "It's all been great. I'm set for life. But when I'm on my way out, who's going to remember me for how many cars I've got in the driveway? I'm just glad I found a cause. I never thought I'd say it. but helping the Russians gives me a real high."
Before leaving, Wayne discovers that, miraculously, Vladimir is a Bills fan too. Two years ago, while on a U.S.-Soviet exchange program to train water-treatment technicians, Vladimir spent a month in Buffalo. "I saw Bills play Jets on TV in sports bar," he says. "Since then, I'm huge fanatic." After they embrace, Wayne—at the time, of course, unaware of the result of Super Bowl XXVI—promises to take him to a game someday. Vladimir smiles and says, "Go, Bills!" Wayne, heading toward the elevator, waves a finger and says, "Go, Russia!