SARATOGA -- Al Castellano's "heart stopped for two seconds" when he heard one of the $648 million MegaMillions jackpot winners bought the ticket in San Jose.

Then, like nearly everyone, he discovered it was somebody else's fortune this time. But Al and his wife, Carmen, know exactly what that somebody else is going through -- and they're ready to offer plenty of advice.

Back in 2001, the South Bay couple were the lucky winners of a $141 million lottery that has changed just about everything -- except the store where Al still exclusively buys his weekly lottery tickets: Union Liquors in San Jose. For an instant Tuesday night, he let himself imagine his once-in-a-lifetime luck had doubled.

"It all came crashing down," said the Army veteran and former grocery clerk, "when they said the winning ticket was bought at a store on Tully Road."

Still, with all the excitement around this week's local, unknown winner, the Castellanos are happily reliving some of the joys and tribulations that go along with being working class folks who are suddenly and very publicly announced as being multi-multi-millionaires.

"Strangers will start coming to your door," said Carmen, 74. "We wanted to stay in our San Jose home, but we were in the phone book and so we simply couldn't stay there. People started coming all hours from everywhere, including other states. We also got mail every day from places like Florida and Germany, South America and Mexico, always asking us for money."


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Slow down

If the Castellanos had two words for the mysterious local winner, it would be: slow down.

The couple discovered they had won their big prize on a sleepy Sunday morning, but did not claim the prize until the following Thursday. The interim was spent seeking formal counsel from attorneys, investment experts, bankers, accountants, tax professionals even a public relations firm.

"You must surround yourself with close family and people you trust," said Carmen. "We also spent the four days discussing everything with our three, adult children who also had our best interests in mind. By the time we stepped forward, we were confident and comfortable in how we were going to proceed."

Al confesses that minutes into discovering they were winners, Carmen, a career secretary, wrote down a list of community organizations they would help financially.

"I thought she was crazy," recalls Al. "She had a hard time talking me into doing something like that. It was all Carmen's doing."

The "it" blossomed into the honored Castellano Family Foundation of San Jose, which began with $5 million the couple initially set aside. Today it has funded more than 500 grants and has donated nearly $4 million to grateful organizations.

"Doing something for the community was a natural inclination," said Carmen. "This community had done so much for us, we wanted to give back."

One sweet morning

Once new millionaires finish with the more pressing business, the Castellanos suggest the next step should be selectively helping family -- kids and kinfolk with vitals like tuition, paying off college loans and helping pay off reasonable debts connected to quality of life. After that, they happily support the pursuit of good-life pleasures.

"First I bought my wife a brand, new car," said Al. "A four-door Jaguar sedan, titanium colored,'' Carmen added. Then Al bought himself a black Jaguar XKR. After four months, they moved to a spacious, four-bedroom home in Saratoga, then settled into collecting art and the consumption of entertainment and travel. "We've been to Europe, the Far East and South America," said Al. And then chuckling, "and every now and again we take trips to Las Vegas. I'm no gambler, but it's very nice to go to Vegas, to see the best shows and to stay in some really nice places."

The new lottery win reminded Al of his personal, sweet morning of June 23, 2001, a few days after he had won $10 playing the game. He used those winnings to buy tickets — and the clerk scoffed at the amount. And then, on Saturday, he bought $4 more. On Sunday morning, while Carmen still slept and he was waiting for a fragrant pot of coffee to brew, Al discovered that magic came tumbling way out of those final four tickets.

"It took me about an hour to understand what was happening to me," said Al. "I stood there thinking, is this a miracle? A dream? Or what?"

Today he has an answer: "It's nothing but pure, dumb luck."

Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836.