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Merle Butler, Illinois Mega Millions Winner, Claims Jackpot Share

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(Updates with quotes, details)

By Bruce Olson

RED BUD, Ill., April 18 (Reuters) - A retired couple from a small town in southern Illinois claimed a share of a record $656 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot on Wednesday, saying they planned to invest the money, help their children and grandchildren and possibly buy a new car.

Merle Butler, a former insurance agent, and Patricia Butler, who worked at several companies, retiring nearly five years ago from investment firm Edwards Jones, are the only winners of the March 30 jackpot to publicly identify themselves.

They have been married for 41 years.

Illinois requires a winner's identity to be revealed. The holders of two other winning tickets in Kansas and Maryland have chosen to remain anonymous.

The prize claimed by the Butlers amounts to $158.9 million in a lump sum before taxes, or about $218.6 million parceled out in 26 yearly installments. It is the largest in Illinois Lottery history.

"I was retired but now it looks like I have a new full-time job," said Merle Butler, referring to the task of managing the money. The couple waited three weeks to come forward after the drawing in order to consult financial and legal advisors about managing the winnings, he added.

At a news conference in Red Bud, located about 36 miles (58 km) south of St. Louis, Merle Butler said he usually only plays the lottery when the jackpot hits about $150 million and that he chose the winning numbers off a Christmas card from a fellow Vietnam War veteran.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," Patricia Butler said in a statement. "Winning this amount of money is a major responsibility, one we take seriously and will figure out step-by-step as we go along." (Reporting By Bruce Olson; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Paul Simao)

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