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COVER STORY : They All Hit the Jackpot : One Might Expect a Multimillion-Dollar Lottery Winner to Settle Into a Life of Luxury. But Andy Vargas Chose to Share His Fortune With Others Instead

January 09, 1994|DIANE SEO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before teeing off at the California Country Club in Industry, Andy Vargas took a brief detour and completed a ritual that has made him famous on the fairways.

Holding a crumpled plastic shopping bag, the 67-year-old business man reached into a trash bin and began to scoop out empty soda and beer cans, as nearby golfers watched in wonder.

"Oh boy, look how many there are," Vargas said, sounding like a youngster who just stumbled upon a jar of treats. "We hit the jackpot, boys and girls."

It was not the first time Vargas had walked away with a jackpot. On Feb. 6, 1988, after buying $15 worth of lottery tickets from a neighborhood store, Vargas won the $5.28-million grand prize in California's Super Lotto game.

A multimillion-dollar lottery winner might be expected to immediately retire into a life of luxury, but Vargas decided to share his fortune with others. Since hitting the jackpot, the Monterey Park resident has helped hundreds of people in Lincoln Heights and other Eastside communities, both directly and through a variety of charitable deeds--one of which he started funding through the laborious process of recycling cans.

"Andy's famous. He's the man with the heart of gold," said James Allen, principal of Glen Alta Elementary School. "You don't see too many people like him anymore who truly want to help people and don't expect anything in return."

Even before becoming a millionaire, Vargas, who owned a small garment manufacturing business in Lincoln Heights for 25 years, did more than his share to help the community.

In 1985, after refusing to accept money for uniforms he made for the Glen Alta drill team, Vargas was asked if he would be willing to "adopt" the school through the Los Angeles Unified School District's Adopt-a-School program.

Vargas, unaware that the program recruits businesses and individuals to assist schools, paused for a moment and then asked, "How many children do you need me to take home?"

"(The principal) said: '400,' and I thought: 'Oh my God,' " Vargas said. "But then she told me (details) about the program and I said OK."

Vargas' first goal was to establish a college scholarship fund for Glen Alta graduates, in part because he dropped out of school after the eighth grade and always felt hindered by his limited education.

"That's the only thing I would change in my life," said Vargas, who is married and has four grown children. "I would get as much education as I could, because you can never catch up."

To fund his scholarship foundation, Vargas started collecting aluminum cans. Although he collected 900 pounds in 18 months, his efforts earned him only $675.

Then in 1988, immediately after winning the lottery, Vargas contributed $20,000 of his first annual post-taxes check of $190,000 to his scholarship fund. He raised $70,000 for the fund, mostly proceeds from an annual fund-raising golf tournament he began in 1989.

Last year, for the first time, Vargas awarded scholarships, ranging from $500 to $1,000, to 15 high school seniors. Students who attended at least the fifth and sixth grades at Glen Alta Elementary and plan to continue their education after high school are eligible to receive a scholarship.

"Andy's vision is to help any kid interested in going to college or a vocational program, regardless of their grades," Allen said. "When the first recipients of his scholarship were announced at the last tournament, Andy was just beaming. That's what he worked so hard for."

In addition to creating the scholarship fund, Vargas was instrumental in getting Richard Riordan, who at the time was a lawyer and businessman, to donate $80,000 in computers and computer equipment to the school in 1991. Riordan, who was elected mayor last April, made similar donations to schools throughout the city.

Vargas also regularly visits Glen Alta Elementary, which he adopted because of its proximity to his garment manufacturing businesses, and takes 40 students to McDonald's for lunch every year on Halloween.

Aside from his involvement at the school, Vargas is president of the Lincoln Heights Optimist Club and is a board member of the Lincoln Heights Chamber of Commerce. He also organized a new Optimist Club in El Sereno and is one of the key fund-raisers for White Memorial Medical Center in East Los Angeles.

Besides time and labor, his charity takes the form of cold cash; Vargas estimates that he donates $70,000 a year to charities or charitable events.

"He's like Santa Claus," Allen said. "All he needs is a big white beard and to gain about 100 pounds."

Although Vargas--a lanky man with slicked-back dark hair--hardly resembles the man in the red suit, he sometimes can't help but play the role.

Eleven days before Christmas, Vargas spent the morning in Downtown Los Angeles buying toys for dozens of children who would be coming to the Lincoln Heights Optimist Club party the following day.

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