Five years ago, the Evergreen High School custodian won the Washington State Lottery’s Quinto game. “I was dumping garbage,” he says. “Just like today. This is where I was when I found out I won the jackpot and took off running."
His wife, Michelle had his winning ticket — worth, “I don't know,” she said when she called him. “It’s got a three, a four and too many zeroes. I can’t count that high.”
To celebrate, Tyrone went bowling, like he’s done every Wednesday night for 25 years. His friend and teammate Kevin Johnson says Tyrone hasn't changed at all. His bank account may be bigger, but not his life.
“I’m just Joe Citizen,” the quiet custodian says. He still lives in a tiny house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Seattle with his wife, a 2-year-old grandson, two stepsons and two in-laws — mother and daughter.
“My mom was the mother of the neighborhood. All the kids came to our house, so that’s why my home is open, too. People come, they eat, and they have fun. Before I won the money, I struggled. Sometimes I fell behind, but I always remember my mom’s words: ‘You can have somethin’, but that person next to you might not have anything. If you look out for that someone, they’ll look out for you.’ ”
Tyrone’s wife, Michelle, touches his hand. “We were in the middle of bankruptcy when we won the lottery.”
Still going to work
That big check bought them out of debt. They signed up for a time-share in Las Vegas. “They call us and say, ‘When you gonna come visit?’ ” Tyrone chuckles. “It really isn’t in our makeup. We don't even go out to dinner. We cook at home.”
He did put a new heat pump in his small house, added vinyl siding, a fence and a new driveway for the car that still carries him to work, five years after his big win.
Most folks figured he'd quit, but Tyrone is not a guy to give up on a job. During the Vietnam War, the former Navy boilerman shipped out to the fight — seven times.
At 4 in the morning, he could be sleeping instead of raising the American flag outside Evergreen High. But he ducks his head and smiles. “Nah. You need to be doing stuff: That’s my philosophy.”
Most people in the White Center neighborhood don't have a lot of money. “Sometimes the lunch I help serve here at school is probably the only meal they get,” Tyrone says of the students.
Five generations have grown up around him since he came home from war and started taking care of kids. Budget cuts eliminated Tyrone's teaching assistant's job 35 years ago, so he stayed on as a janitor. He never went looking for another classroom because he found a better one — and a second job — out back.
You see, Tyrone isn’t just the Evergreen High School custodian; he also coaches the track team. And that’s where he decided to splurge with his lottery winnings.
“I’m getting excited!” he says, watching runners circling toward him on the school’s old cinder track. This summer he’s building them a new one. State-of-the-art. Cost him 40,000 bucks.
“I’m not done,” he chuckles. Tyrone buys more lottery tickets every week. “Our tennis coach, she has, like, a hundred kids tryin' to play on four courts.” Tyrone dreams of building more. Doesn’t care about the odds. “Life is lucky!” he says. And when it’s not, Tyrone feels it falls to the janitor to fix it.
For instance, his track team captain, DeVante Botello, is having a tough time. The 18-year-old's mother died of a heart attack, just before his graduation.
“We were really close," DeVante says. “Her death left a void at home. I slept in the living room after her heart attack and woke up waiting to go help her.”
But she was gone. “My family is in shambles. I’m kind of floundering. I don’t know what to do.”
‘A real hero’
The honor student was just dragging his pen across paper, until his track coach showed him how to play the game of life. “He taught me perseverance,” DeVante says. “How to hold on and deal with the cards you're dealt. ‘Power through,’ ” Coach said. “ ‘Life is hard.’ ”
DeVante's eyes glisten. “Coach has this soft chuckle and then a nod. That power nod gets me every time. He just wanted to let me know that he was there for me.” He swallows hard. “Coach said I didn't have to feel alone.”
When life throws curves, people often dwell on the terrible things that happen. They isolate themselves in grief. Tyrone asked DeVante to notice those who were willing to put their hands on his shoulders and help him get through the ordeal. The boy’s father was not around. Tyrone offered to pay for college.
“When I was coming up, I just had my mom,” Tyrone says with a shrug. “So I'm here for him.”
“Coach is probably the most amazing man I'm ever gonna meet,” DeVante says. “He's my hero — a real hero.” One who hasn't gone to the moon or scored a touchdown, doesn't have a reality show, hasn't written a book. “Why do you need to write a book when you just live the way he does and reaches out and affects so many lives?” DeVante asks.
DeVante's plans now include college. “Whatever I do with my life is gonna be in honor of Tyrone. He is always gonna live on through my actions. I wish I was as good as him. I work for it. I work for it every day. Tyrone Curry, track coach, janitor. I’m never going to forget him.” The millionaire who cares more for other people's dreams than he does his own — the luckiest man alive.
For more information or to contact the Curry's or DeVante Botello:
Catherine Carbone Rogers
Evergreen High School
830 SW 116TH ST
SEATTLE, WA 98146