He took home $1 million prize on a game show, but instead of
buying for himself
– Joe Trela cared of his family
Gilroy – Joe Trela’s mother wants him to be more selfish.
People win money, and then people spend that money. They live luxurious lives with multiple cars, mansions and yachts.
But after winning the $1 million prize on the television game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in 2000, Joe spent the next six years of his life sacrificing his own dreams to help his family members accomplish theirs. He gave one brother a down payment on a home in Indiana, paid another brother’s college tuition and stayed home with his mother in Gilroy to help out with another brother suffering from cerebral palsy and a grandmother whose memory has slowly started to slip.
“It seemed the natural way to do it. A big house is too much to clean and I can only drive one car at a time,” said the 31-year-old, who was 25 when he won the money.
Although Joe’s family members appreciate what he has done for them, each said his selflessness didn’t come as a surprise. His brothers say Joe was always the one to stay behind at home so they could do the things they wanted to do first.
Even though Joe’s mother, Carmel, tried to raise her four sons right, she has another reason why Joe may have ended up so selfless.
When Joe was in his early teens, his father was diagnosed with von Hippel-Lindau syndrome, a genetic condition that affects about 1 in every 32,000 people in the world. The condition caused malignant tumors on his spinal cord. An experimental therapy to rid the cancer from his bones fried his spinal cord and put him in a wheelchair. Not long after, he was diagnosed with cancer of the kidneys, which spread to his lungs and on to his brain. Joe’s father died shortly thereafter. Joe was 15.
Million dollar dreams
Joe tried to get on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” multiple times. He always thought he did well, but never got a call back until the one time when he thought he did the worst.
While in the “hot seat” facing the show’s host, Regis Philbin, Joe breezed through most of the early questions. But he hit a road block on the 10th question: “What baseball player played in the most World Series games?”
Joe had used the “ask the audience” lifeline on an earlier question. With the two lifelines left Joe asked to use the “50-50” lifeline, which cut the possible answers to two names: Reggie Jackson or Yogi Berra. He still didn’t know the answer and had to use his final lifeline.
Joe had the show’s staff call his brother Nate, who at the time was a sports writer for the Fort Wayne, Ind., News-Sentinel. Nate wasn’t sure what the answer was, but told Joe if he had to choose it would be Reggie Jackson. But Nate had been hesitant. Knowing his brother, Joe chose not to listen. If Nate wasn’t sure, then Joe was going to go with his gut. He chose Yogi Berra and answered the next five questions unassisted.
Joe and his mother had come to a deal. If Joe made it to the last question and didn’t know the answer, he would just take the $500,000 and walk. She was in shock when the final question came up and Joe sat there silently.
“He doesn’t know it?” she asked herself, while sitting in the audience. “Then why hasn’t he taken the money?”
Joe sat and pondered the question, “What insect shorted out an early supercomputer and inspired the term ‘computer bug’?” for about 20 minutes until he gave his final answer: a moth. Philbin then told Joe had just won $1 million.
Doing what he does best
Joe’s life took a turn after he won the money. Joe is a quiet, thoughtful man, who takes his time to think before he speaks. There’s always a hint of sarcasm sprinkled into whatever he says, even when he’s completely serious. But even someone who stays home and reads while others go out for a beer has to expect to go from an average Joe to a neo-celebrity after winning $1 million on a nationally televised game show.
No matter where he went in Gilroy after winning on the show, Joe was recognized by almost everyone. He tried to shy away from the new found fame, his brother Tony said, but couldn’t get away from it. When people asked him for an autograph, he just shrugged his shoulders and went along with it.
“He couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized by people. And if they didn’t know, we would tell them,” Tony said. “It was funny that the shyest one (of the family) was getting the most attention.”
After winning, Joe went on a trip to Europe where he cruised the Mediterranean for a month. Even far from home, a family that was on vacation from the states recognized him from the show.
Joe says he was never really a millionaire. Taxes took about 46 percent of his winnings, and even when he cashed the $1 million check at the bank, he was overdrawn.
But the $540,000 he ended up with helped him help his family. Joe’s brothers said there may be no way to ever pay him back for what he has done for them. His brother Nate, 28, was living in Indiana working as a reporter when Joe won the money. Joe, knowing that Nate was not making much money as a journalist and that his wife was in graduate school, immediately offered to give Nate a down payment on a home. Nate took the money a year later and bought a starter home in South Bend, Ind.
“The money couldn’t have ended up in better hands,” Nate said. “His first thoughts were, ‘Who in my family can I help?'”
Joe didn’t stop there. He paid for his youngest brother, Tony, to get through college. At the time the show was taped, Tony was attending the University of Notre Dame, but was readying himself to leave for a year or two because his mother couldn’t afford tuition. Even though Carmel was a single mother with four children, she was still making too much money to be eligible for financial aid.
Tony, now 24, didn’t want to leave the school or his girlfriend, but he understood he would have to. But then Joe won the money and not only paid for Tony’s college tuition, but also his room and board and school books.
Tony completed his program at Notre Dame and stayed with his girlfriend who eventually became his wife.
“If I had to leave (school), I wouldn’t have my wife right now,” Tony said. “I owe my brother a debt I’ll never be able to repay.”
But something Joe has done since the show has nothing to do with money: He stayed behind. He lives with his mother in Gilroy where he helped take care of his brother, Nick, until he moved into an assisted living home in San Martin. Nick has cerebral palsy and is a quadriplegic.
“(Joe) never complained. He just did it,” Carmel said. “He is just a helpful guy. He puts other people’s needs in front of his own.”
Joe said he hasn’t put too much thought into what he has done for his family, although it has crossed his mind. Helping people is just what he does best, Joe said. At his current job with Comcast, as a customer account executive, he takes customer calls and helps them through their problems with their equipment.
Not in it for the show
Although helping his family has been a priority for Joe, he does have a dream of his own: to write screen plays for television and the big screen. One summer when he was about 8, he sat at home and watched “Star Trek II” a dozen times. He then wrote a “rip-off” of the plot where he banished some of his peers into space. But it wasn’t until he grew older that he knew he wanted to write scripts for a career.
“It was (when I watched) ‘Batman and Robin’ when I thought, ‘God, I could write better than this,'” he said. “That was a really bad movie.”
Joe’s dream has taken a back seat to things he feels are more important. He has sent out some scripts, he said, but knows he won’t get anywhere until he moves to Los Angeles. And it doesn’t help, Joe said, that the shows he writes screen plays for keep getting canceled.
Whether or not this dream works out for him, Joe knows that he has the money to pick up and move if he wants to even though he won’t say how much is left. He has been smart with his winnings. He hasn’t blown it on frivolous things.
About a year after he won on the show, “Good Morning America” had a reunion of the past $1 million winners. While away from the cameras, a few of the guys talked about the cars they had bought – everything from a Mercedes to a BMW. Then they turned to Joe and asked what he had bought.
“I’m leasing an Impala,” Joe replied, as they looked at him like he was crazy. “It has a lot of room and gets great gas mileage.”
Carmel said that moment summed up Joe’s character completely.
“He’s not in it for the show of it,” she said, “and he doesn’t understand the people that are.”
The 15 Questions That led to the prize
Here are the 15 questions that Joe Trela answered to win the $1 million prize (answers at bottom):
1. $100: According to an Aesop fable, you should never count what before they hatch?
2. $200: What describes a reaction that is automatic and unthinkable?
3. $400: What describes the extra-sensory ability to communicate from one mind to the other?
4. $800: What culinary staple traditionally comes in two species: arabica and robusta?
a) split pea
b) cola nut
c) coffee bean
d) sunflower seed
5. $1,000: What company features a dog called Sock Puppet in its advertising campaign?
6. $2,000: Which of the following symbols appears over “n” in Spanglish?
7. $4,000: Which of the following actors is the voice of Buzz Lightyear in the “Toy Story” movies?
a) Michael J. Fox
b) Tom Hanks
c) Tim Allen
d) Robin Williams
8. $8,000: Which profession finishes the Shakespearean phrase, “first thing, kill all the …”?
9. $16,000: Ernest Hemmingway’s novel “Death in the Afternoon” concerns what?
a) mountain climbing
b) deep sea fishing
10. $32,000: What baseball player played in the most World Series games?
a) Reggie Jackson
b) Yogi Berra
c) Mickey Mantle
d) Pee Wee Reese
11. $64,000: How many people are depicted in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”?
12. $125,000: Which of the following was never a colony of Portugal?
c) East Timor
13. $250,000: Minus 40 degrees Celsius converts to what temperature Fahrenheit?
a) 0 degrees
b) -22 degrees
c) -40 degrees
d) -58 degrees
14. $500,000: In the movie “The Exorcist,” what spirit does young Regan talk to through a Ouija board?
d) Captain Howdy
15: $1,000,000: What insect shorted out an early supercomputer and inspired the term “computer bug?”
d) Japanese beetle
1. chickens; 2. knee-jerk; 3. telepathy; 4. coffee bean; 5. Pets.com; 6. tilde; 7. Tim Allen; 8. lawyers;
9. bullfighting; 10. Yogi Berra; 11. Thirteen; 12. Thailand; 13. -40 degrees; 14. Captain Howdy; 15. moth