Paula Otto honored as finalist for Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year Award

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Paula Otto honored as finalist for Richmond Times-Dispatch Person of the Year Award

Virginia Lottery Executive Director Paula Otto was one of 24 honorees for the Person of the Year Award, presented by the Richmond Times-Dispatch (RTD) newspaper.

The Virginia Lottery was little more than a year old when Paula Otto witnessed a lesson in leadership.

In early 1990, a mistake in a televised drawing had led to the naming of the wrong person to have a chance at winning $1 million on a lottery show. When the error was discovered, Otto, then the agency's public affairs director, turned to Kenneth W. Thorson, its first executive director. Thorson, a lawyer, immediately reversed the televised result. 

For Otto, the decision (which led to a lawsuit the lottery won) was the right call because it upheld the integrity of the game – and the state agency that runs it.

"We sell pieces of paper," she said. "If people don't trust the fairness and the integrity of those pieces of paper, we're in trouble. We have nothing."

Sticking to the rules and staying calm under pressure have been hallmarks for Otto, who is now in her second stint with the lottery and, in 2017, is marking her 10th year as executive director.

It's also the 30th anniversary of state voters approving a lottery in 1987 vote, and Otto was one of the agency's early employees. Between her initial PR role and her current leadership position, she spent a decade teaching and administering mass communications classes at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Otto's steadiness is a prized asset in a job that oversees an agency that generates $550 million a year for the state budget, primarily to aid public education. It employs 275 people full time.

"I thought it was really special when the governor (Tim Kaine at the time) decided she should be the director," said Thorson, now retired in Maine.

Thorson said he relied on Otto for her instincts in preserving the hallmarks of what some called "the genteel lottery" for its fastidious approach to advertising the games. "Her opinion about whether something was over the line or not was always part of the equation," he said.

The lottery's advertising has been legendary – many Virginians remember Lady Luck through her daffy two-decade run – but it doesn't suggest that winning will change people's lives, encourage them to quit a job or surround them with visions of riches.

"To this day, the executive director still approves every word, every image of the advertising," Otto said.

Beyond the lottery, Otto is most passionate about her work as a volunteer, board member and past president of Virginia Voice radio reading service for people with impaired vision. She also has served on the board of the Girl Scouts of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Richmond Forum, YWCA Richmond, Meals on Wheels of Greater Richmond and the Catholic Virginian newspaper.

"I always think you need to be involved in your community," she said.

Otto first joined the lottery after covering, as a Richmond TV reporter, the perennial political debate over whether to put Virginia in the gambling business. When the lottery was approved and Thorson named director, Otto sought the communications director job. Thorson called her on her honeymoon in Jamaica with the offer. "It was the only PR job I ever applied for," she said.

It wasn't hard for Otto to go from covering the government to speaking for it. Her father was a longtime official at what became the Federal Emergency Management Agency, retiring as director of public affairs. Her mother had worked at the Social Security Administration before raising four children in Arlington County.

"I think I had public service in my blood," Otto said. "We have to make sure we're fiercely protecting the integrity of the Virginia Lottery."



executive director, Virginia Lottery

Hometown: Arlington County

Family: husband Dan Timberlake


If you had to pick a different profession or course of study, what would you choose?

I was very involved in theater growing up, and I thought I might try to make a living that way. Although I switched over to journalism in my freshman year of college, I still have a love of theater. I grew up watching Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett and always said I wanted to have a television show like one of theirs.

What is something about yourself that might come as a surprise to others?

Since I’m in a suit and heels most days at work, people are often surprised that I love being outdoors with my husband and our dog, Mosby – fishing, kayaking, boating and walking in nature.

If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?

I would love to meet Maggie Walker. She was such an intelligent, courageous and visionary woman. While a reporter at WTVR-TV, I did a story about her shortly after I moved to Richmond and have always been interested in her legacy. It’s wonderful that Richmond now has the Maggie Walker Memorial Plaza.

Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.

I have been very fortunate in my life and have had few disappointments. The most challenging time of my adult life came after my mother had a serious stroke and went from being an independent 80-something living on her own to needing 24-hour care. She moved to Richmond, and I was fortunate to be in a position to help her and to have an even closer relationship in her final years.

Who is your role model?

Although my parents are both deceased, not a week goes by that I don’t think about a lesson I learned from them. Growing up outside of Washington in the 1960s, we had a window on our changing society. The dinnertime conversations included discussions about national politics, Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington and the Vietnam War. From my parents I learned the importance of faith, the reward of hard work, the need to hold yourself to the highest levels of honesty and integrity and the value of sharing your talents and treasures.

Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you 

My decision to apply for a job at the Virginia Lottery in 1988 turned out to be life-altering. At the time, I was also looking for a reporting job in a bigger TV market. I covered the announcement naming Ken Thorson as the first lottery director and went home that evening and typed – yes, typed – a letter to him saying that I hoped to be his public information director. Of course there was an official application process, an interview and a writing test. On my honeymoon, getting the call from Ken offering me that first job at the lottery certainly changed my life.

What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?

My husband and I enjoy attending sporting events – college athletics and professional football and baseball games. We are planning a road trip to visit every National League stadium the first summer we retire.

What is your favorite book?

It’s hard to name a favorite. I love to read and always look forward to reading a book a day while on vacation. This past summer, I enjoyed David Baldacci’s latest novel. The last business book I read was "Vaporized," by Robert Tercek, who writes about the digital revolution for consumers and businesses.

What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?

I believe my greatest strength is my optimism. Even in tough circumstances, I can find the good. My weakness is that I like having a lot of information – sometimes too much. Perhaps from my reporter training, I like gathering a lot of data and opinions, especially when I am making a big decision.

What is your favorite thing about the Richmond region?

I appreciate that we have a wonderful symphony, the Richmond Forum, great restaurants and amazing outdoor activities. It’s hard to name a favorite.

If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?

Always do the right thing. We can’t control what others do or a situation we may find ourselves in. But we can always make the decision to be honest, compassionate and considerate.

John Hagerty |Communications Specialist |Virginia Lottery
600 East Main Street, Richmond, VA 23219
Ph: +1 804-692-7772  
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