Monday, January 13, 1997
A 'super guy' backs himself
into a corner

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The old newspaperman still occupies the place of honor at Sandaddy's Cafe.

He hobbles in on his cane and heads for the corner of the bar. With a groan, he eases onto the only stool with a backrest.

Patrons greet him by name with a pat on the back and a smile. He still looks like he's everybody's friend - even though he took about $10,000 from his paper's Christmas fund to play the lottery.

Les Wilson broke this story in the weekly Valley Courier. It was his last scoop. That's because he was the guy who took money earmarked for helping sick kids and poor people, and spent it on his habit, playing rub-off lottery games.

His story made the TV news and daily papers. ''Editor resigns after telling readers he used charity fund to buy lottery tickets.'' Now, he's getting calls from foreign wire services and tabloid TV shows.

They want to talk with the man who spent a career helping people through the donations that trickled in because of his columns, before he let his gambling addiction ruin his good name.

They want to see the spot on the bar he rubbed raw by scratching off the waxy seals on instant-winner lottery games like Stocking Stuffer and Lucky Dog.

Late last week, Les didn't look so lucky. At high noon, he sat slumped on his stool, looking deathly pale and chain-smoking Kools while glancing at the bar's TV. Before him stood a tall glass of beer and a short shot of whiskey.

The news was on. Today, the TV crews were chasing another story. Les wasn't on their list. But his case isn't closed. Reading police have turned over the results of their investigation to the county prosecutor.

''This is so degrading,'' Les says. He takes a long, deep drag on his cigarette. Then he fiddles with his thumbnail, blackened by the tars and nicotine of too many Kools.

''Everywhere I go somebody's sticking a microphone in my face and asking questions,'' he says.

Every day, it's something else.

''Now, they're accusing me of marring the bar,'' he says.

''Look, this whole thing is rough,'' he says, rubbing his thin hands over a bar top covered with wooden floor tiles. Many of the tiles have seen better days. They're chipped. Split. Drink-stained. Wobbly.

''They say I left an impression - right here! - where I rubbed my lottery tickets.'' He taps a worn spot on the bar.

''But I rubbed them over here.'' He leans to his left and pats a place that still has some finish left on it.

He says he's through playing the lottery.

''That's past.''

But that gives him little peace.

''I'm trying to get into the hospital,'' he says. ''I'm about to have a nervous breakdown.''

Numbers game

Temptation for Les Wilson lurked across the street. The Reading Carry Out, its neon sign spelling out ''Lottery'' in orange letters, stands 54 steps from his bar stool.

This is where he would buy $40 worth of lottery tickets every day.

''Sometimes he'd hit a winner for $100 or $1,000,'' says cashier Don Bucksath.

''I feel real sorry for Les,'' he adds. ''He's a real super guy. He's helped lots of people.''

That's what I hear.

Then I think of what he did with that Christmas fund.

The two do not compute.

In the abstract, it's easy to sit in judgment of a man like Les Wilson. Sure, he did good deeds. His Christmas fund bought furniture and clothes for the needy. It paid medical bills for the sick.

But, he also betrayed a public trust.

He helped himself to money that was given from the heart.

That made me mad enough to want to nail him to the bar when I first saw him.

But as he talked, my anger turned to sorrow.

It wasn't because of what he said. It was where he was saying it.

Les Wilson sat in the lonely corner of a smoky bar. His constant companions were his pack of Kools, a beer, a shot and the bitter taste of disgrace.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.