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Letter-Perfect Performance

AFSCME members compete on "Wheel of Fortune" — and win!

COLUMBUS, OHIO

As 2,000 audience members chanted "Wheeeeel. Of. Fortune!" the hearts of Chris Fay, 23, and his brother Kevin, 25, began to race.

Chris, a member of AFSCME Local 419 (Council 93), and Kevin, an aide in a home for disabled adults, had dreamed about this moment since their childhood: the chance to play on America's favorite game show. Now they were among 24 contestants on a special week-long series dedicated to America's labor movement.

"Positive thinking" had helped the Fays win the preliminary contest in their home state of Massachusetts. But would it be enough to help them win when the lights came on and the cameras rolled — when it really mattered?

The Fay brothers were one of three AFSCME teams to compete on "Wheel's Salute to the American Working Family," a five-game tribute to the members of the AFL-CIO which aired Labor Day week. A dozen members of AFL-CIO unions, each paired with a family member, survived the regional tryouts to earn the right to spin the famous wheel, choose their letters and solve the game's word puzzles. Not only did these special shows offer winners tens of thousands of dollars in cash, but prizes also included union-made products such as crystal, golf clubs and vacation packages.

PRACTICE BY PHONE. Juliette Brown-Perry, 47, a member of AFSCME Local 2081 (Council 31), and her daughter Juliette Brown, 27, traveled from Chicago to the Ohio State Fair near Columbus where all five shows were taped in a breakneck, one-day marathon. An "avid Wheel-watcher" since the show's inception 15 years ago, Brown-Perry was "thrilled" to be on the program.

In the weeks leading up to the show, Brown-Perry would hurry home from work at the Illinois Department of Children's and Family Services to practice the game over the telephone with her daughter. It's a good thing they prepared because they were chosen to compete on the first show. After tough competition, they lost the game but received two sets of engraved watches as consolation prizes.

"I'm glad we had the opportunity to play," says Brown-Perry. "I would do it again in a minute." Her daughter agreed.

AFSCME Local 1067 (Council 93) member Patricia Hennessey, 41, an employee of Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, and her sister Christine Flatley, 38, competed in game three. The sisters earned $4,400 for correctly guessing "She's Got Eyes in the Back of Her Head" but it was not enough to give them the win.

"We really had fun," enthuses Hennessey, adding that her nervousness evaporated once she was on the set.

BATTLING BROTHERS. The brothers Fay had plenty of opportunity to learn strategy by the time it was their turn to compete on game four. Chris needed all the practice he could get. A corrections officer at the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston, he works the 3 p.m.-11 p.m. shift and couldn't watch the show. "The best I could do was watch the inmates watch the show," Chris remarks.

The pair came to the competition with their own substantial — and loud — cheering section. Seven friends and relatives piled into a minivan for the two-day journey from Massachusetts to Ohio. Their parents, who arrived by air, gave the young men a special good-luck charm: their great-grandfather's longshoremen's union card from 1918.

The Fays are a union family indeed. Leo Fay, the contestants' father, was a member of the machinists' union for 19 years. Their aunt, Diane Fay, has risen to become president of AFSCME Council 93 after years as a loyal member of Local 1526 which her father, Cliff Fay, organized in 1939. In fact, for an extra measure of good luck — and good taste — the Fay brothers borrowed two of grandfather Cliff's suits to wear on the show.

Luck smiled on the Fays as they spun the wheel during the fourth game. The baseball fans solved their first puzzle with the words "Cincinnati Reds." After narrowly dodging bankruptcy twice, the part-time musicians solved their second puzzle, "Country Singer Travis Tritt," and guaranteed themselves a spot on the final show.

GRAND FINALE. In the audience, the Fay chorus was particularly vocal as the brothers vied for the championship on the last show. Why not! Not only could the guys take home big bucks, they could also win a trip for 10 to Hawaii — not a bad payback for a group who spent two days cooped up in a minivan.

Kevin and Chris nailed just one puzzle on the final show but it was enough to give them the series championship, the trip and the chance to win the bonus prize.

When host Pat Sajak stood with them on the stage for the bonus prize round, it dawned on them that they had already won $52,120 and the Hawaiian vacation.

"When I realized we had won the trip, my mind just went blank," Chris says. "Forget about solving the bonus puzzle, all I saw was random letters." It probably didn't help that the final word was "Childbirth," a concept very distant to these two young bachelors.

They missed the grand prize — a cash award of $25,000 — but their supporters didn't care. The Fay brigade swarmed the brothers on stage.

After all the puzzles had been solved, one question remained: Where would their winnings go?

The bulk to savings, they say, with a little set aside for graduate school tuition and equipment for their band — and, no doubt, a few dollars for frozen drinks on a Hawaiian beach.

By Jeff Rubin

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