Kathy Gilroy has crusaded against gambling for decades, speaking out against casinos, illegal raffles and the recent wave of video poker cafes.
As one of the most visible gaming opponents in Illinois, she has warned that the vice erodes society's values and work ethic, takes money from poor people and can lead to addiction, bankruptcy, crime and suicide.
Just this year, she blew the whistle on a $1.6 million Queen of Hearts raffle put on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in rural Morris, forcing it to shut down hours before the planned drawing, until the raffle was properly licensed.
So even she concedes it may seem ironic that she recently won $25,000 by playing a sweepstakes game at a gambling cafe in her hometown of Villa Park.
"I called a pastor friend, and said, 'Oh my God, should I send it back? What do I do? Do I donate it?'" she said. "He said, 'Don't feel guilty. You just got paid for all your volunteer work against gambling.' It's God showing his grace on me."
Despite her longtime anti-gambling activism, it turns out Gilroy has a history of playing and winning sweepstakes. She said she's landed prizes including electronics and trips to the Bahamas and California. She once won a big-screen TV from a mechanic, but asked instead for $1,000 in service. A week later, her transmission went out, and she quickly got her money's worth.
She'll even play the video poker machines at gambling cafes if she is given a free promo card.
The distinction Gilroy makes is that she was not spending her own money to gamble. She enters sweepstakes because, by state law, they must be made available free of charge. And - unlike the VFW game that was not licensed, as required by law - she says the sweepstakes she plays are perfectly legal.
Still, Morris VFW Commander Jerry Zeborowski was perplexed to hear that Gilroy had won a sweepstakes.
"It's ironic that someone who's anti-gambling would enter something like that," he said. "That's a little hypocrisy there, don't you think?"
Gilroy, 68, who works selling supplemental health insurance for people on Medicare, shrugs off the negative comments she's gotten over the years, such as when she succeeded in halting a raffle to raise money for needy college students because it was unlicensed and not put on by a nonprofit, as required by law.
But she admitted she did have to think twice about this situation.
She worried that her winnings were proceeds from money that people lost gambling, but decided that it comes out of the profits of the parent company, Laredo Hospitality Ventures.
Gilroy said she was raised on a farm near Lost Nation, Iowa, in a family that never had much money. She worked her way through school, and traveled to fairs and trade shows around the country, selling everything from books to blenders.
Decades ago, she used to gamble at racetracks, she said. But her attitude towards gambling started to change when she won $700, only to lose it back swiftly to the track.
She took part in an anti-gambling seminar by the Rev. Tom Grey, leader of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling, formed in 1994. She began speaking out against any effort to expand gambling, including most recently with video poker cafes, which have grown to offer more than 24,000 machines statewide.
Last year, as one example, she asked the Lincolnwood Village Board to reject a request to lift its ban on video gambling. At issue was a proposal by Laredo Hospitality to open a Stella's Cafe - the same Des Plaines company and gambling parlor chain through which Gilroy ended up winning her drawing.
As Gilroy tells it, she heard about the sweepstakes after signing up for the gambling cafes' emails. After every fifth visit to a cafe, she got a scratch-off card, which occasionally won her a $5 card to play the machines or entries for the grand prize, a new Ford Mustang convertible.
Finalists were drawn from each of Laredo's 52 locations in Illinois, and Gilroy was one of them. Winners had to be present, so she attended the grand prize drawing at a restaurant in Rosemont on Dec. 16.
She drew No. 7, and when her number was pulled from a fishbowl, she was amazed to hear that she had won. She opted for $25,000 in cash instead of a car, and has already bought some stocks with the money.
To get the winnings, Gilroy had to sign an agreement to let Laredo take her photo and use it as they wish - so she might end up promoting the very industry she fights.
Laredo officials didn't return calls for comment, and didn't allow the Tribune to take Gilroy's picture inside the Stella's in Villa Park, so they may not be eager to use her as their poster child.
Years ago, just before she quit betting on the ponies, Gilroy said, she looked around and was struck by the smoke and the broken-down players at the track.
"I said, 'What am I doing?' This is so stupid,'" she recalled. "It dawned on me, this is not the lifestyle I want. I don't want to even associate with these people."
Still, after all these years, after shutting down numerous illegal raffles and raising awareness statewide that raffles need to be locally licensed, Gilroy said she takes advantage of sweepstakes whenever she can.
"It's the gambling I oppose," she said, "not the sweepstakes."
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