Mega-million lottery winner Bob Erb wants to clear up a few rumours.
He’s not interested in acquiring real estate of any kind—he’s not buying a strip club, the Northern, the Inn of the West, or fixing up Little Ave.’s derelict properties.
“I’ve heard all sorts of rumours, people coming up to me saying this and that,” said Erb last week while having lunch at his favourite table at a local pub.
“I’m 60 years old and single,” he said. “I’m not interested in developing. My main focus is the legalization of marijuana and the local charities here in town.”
It’s been just over a month since Erb, local marijuana activist, antiques dealer, seasonal construction worker, and former mayoral candidate, won $25 million from a Lotto Max ticket he bought at the Hazelton Chevron last month—and Terrace has been buzzing with stories about his generosity.
Nearly everyone knows someone with an Erb story, and the general consensus tends to be that it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
And no wonder. At this point, he says he’s given out nearly $7 million to neighbours, friends, local charities and businesses. He’s gone through half-a-dozen chequebooks at 25 cheques each. And he has plans for a $3 million trust that will give out $100,000 a year to community groups for years to come.
Erb’s been pulling 18-hour days entertaining family and friends who poured into town, at his invitation, after his big win.
The weekend after he won, he rented out the Lodge at Skeena Landing so the people he was flying in could have a home base (other people who had reservations there switched hotels so the Erb clan could stay together).
“I’m the only one out here, maybe a bit of the black sheep of the family,” Erb said. “I hadn’t seen many of those people in 20, 30, 40 years, and I just hustled them through my house in a few minutes.”
His family, hailing mainly from Saskatchewan, has its roots in farming and politics. His great-uncle Walter was the health minister for NDP predecessor Co-operative Commonwealth Federation premier Tommy Douglas when he introduced health-care in the 1960s.
“[I gained my] social consciousness from growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and having that political, grassroots connection with my uncle,” Erb says.
So when he won the lottery, deciding what to do with the money wasn’t a challenge.
“After buying lottery tickets for 40 years, I knew exactly what I was doing with the money. I was getting a little frustrated that it was taking me so long.”
His first call was to his banker, so he could set aside a trust for his grandchildren, invest $10 million in blue chip stocks, and ensure the interest on his winnings would work for him to secure a healthy nest-egg.
And then he started handing out cheques.
“I’ve gotta take care of my own back yard,” he said. “People who were getting their telephones cut off or had been cut off, who were supplementing their groceries and diets through food kitchens.”
Over a dozen businesses were given thousands of dollars for staff needs. These are places he’s dealt with for years, like Kalum Tire, the Pacific Networking Group, All West Glass, Wightman and Smith, Safeway, where his daughter worked, and the Rosswood Community Centre—whose building is to be renovated, and has used part of the money to a vintage popcorn maker, at Erb’s request.
Local charities and non-profits like Ksan House, who have been using part of their money for weekly grocery draws on their Facebook page, the Salvation Army, Branch 13 of the Royal Canadian Legion, the Greater Terrace Beautification Society, Mills Memorial Hospital Auxiliary, local food banks and soup kitchens, Terrace Peaks Gymnastics Club, and Heritage Park Museum, also received large sums of money, many in the tens of thousands of dollars.
“He’s being so generous, he’s always been,” said Kelsey Wiebe, curator of Heritage Park Museum, which received a $20,000 donation.
The donation is a huge help to the museum, she said. “We’re on a really small budget.”
She says they are still working out the details on how to spend the money, but part will be put aside to help with the downtown museum.
“And we’re going to go out there and make sure he’s okay with whatever we’re doing.”
Erb has sent money to several people suffering serious hardships across Canada but says they were one-time gifts.
“It’s difficult to verify the truth of the story,” he said.
Letters arrive at Erb’s home daily. He’s received national media attention, and a radio station in North Carolina is even looking to interview him, but he says he hasn’t read any of the stories.
And although at first he said he was going to go back to work at Beutle Masonry, he’s changed his mind.
“It looks like a pretty noble thing to do,” he said. “But how can I take a job from someone in the community?”
An Erb family reunion is in the works, and he’s set to take a trip across Canada in his new Lincoln Navigator and Air Stream trailer next year, but other than that, he says he just wants to focus his life’s work, the legalization of marijuana.
He’s planning a marijuana legalization networking conference in Terrace for the new year, and will fly in fellow pot activists to brainstorm ways they can tackle “the greatest social injustice of the past 70 years, pot prohibition.” Erb cites opinion polls showing that up to three-quarters of Canadians support this cause.
“When I was beating the drums as a young man in my early-teens and early-twenties, there was only 18 per cent support for legalization,” he said, clearly proud that the population has come around to share his views—although he wishes politicians would do the same. “There were thousands of Bob Erbs in the ‘60s, tens of thousands of Bob Erbs in the ‘70s, hundreds of thousands of Bob Erbs in the ‘80s, and there’s millions of them now in the new millennium.”
But there’s only one local philanthropist Bob Erb.
“I’ve been told I’m one of a kind,” he said. “I love Terrace. I challenge any of the many, many people who made their fortune in the Terrace area … to open their pocketbooks and open their hearts.”