Mona Shield Payne / Special to the Sun
Monday, March 17, 2014 | 2:24 p.m.
Long before most of the guests at the funeral of Jackie Gaughan began streaming into St. Viator Catholic Church, Gaughan’s Irish heritage played out in the church parking lot.
There, a solitary musician tuned his bagpipes. The sound carried over the church’s asphalt expanse as a fitting tribute to a man uniformly proud of his Irish heritage and who helped shape Las Vegas.
“This is the best way to honor him, on St. Patrick’s Day in Las Vegas,” Gaughan’s grandson Brendan said before today’s funeral. “He was a proud man who accomplished so much in his 93 years. He lived a very full life and, thankfully for the family, did not suffer at the end.”
Jackie Gaughan died Wednesday morning of what his grandson said was “old age” at Nathan Adelson Hospice. He was under care at the hospice for just 36 hours, having been moved to the health care center from his 15th-floor residence at El Cortez, the downtown hotel and casino he owned from 1963-2008.
In lieu of flowers, the Gaughan family asks that donations be made to Bishop Gorman High School. El Cortez is holding a celebration of Gaughan’s life at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Parlour Bar with champagne and cake. The event is open to the public.
El Cortez was the cornerstone of the Gaughan empire. He and his only surviving child, Michael, owned more resorts than any father-son tandem in the city’s history.
“There is a lot of responsibility, being in this family, to uphold the name ‘Gaughan,’ and that comes from Jackie Gaughan,” Brendan said. “No member of the family wants to tarnish that. ... He was a legend, and when legends die, they often become bigger when they pass away. I think that will happen with Jackie Gaughan.”
Gaughan was no question a Las Vegas legend. Over the decades, Gaughan owned Gold Spike, Las Vegas Club and the old Western. He had an interest in two Showboats (in Las Vegas and Atlantic City), the Flamingo, Golden Nugget, Pioneer Club, Boulder Club and the Royal Inn, which Michael Gaughan also owned. Michael Gaughan owned or co-owned the old Barbary Coast, Gold Coast and the Orleans and remains the owner of South Point.
The 900-seat church was nearly filled, with a host of Vegas dignitaries and old friends honoring the man who, at one point, controlled a quarter of the hotel business in downtown Las Vegas and lived in the city for 64 years.
Speakers included Nevada Sen. Harry Reid; resort mogul (and onetime Gaughan employee) Steve Wynn; Lawrence Epstein, speaking on behalf of his father and longtime Gaughan business partner at El Cortez, Kenny Epstein; and another friend of Gaughan’s for many decades, Tito Tiberti. Former Nevada Govs. Bob Miller and Richard Bryan attended, as did members of the legendary Binion family, Jack and Becky Binion.
The entire Gaughan brood was in attendance, as were such longtime friends as Burton Cohen, an executive at the Frontier, Circus Circus, Thunderbird, Flamingo and Desert Inn. Larry Ruvo, whose family has known the Gaughans for decades, was there. The pallbearers were friends and associates Wynn, Jack Binion, Kenny Epstein, Tiberti, Mike Nolan, Joe Woody, Tony Gurovsky, Frank Toti, Bill Boyle and Steve Delmont. The celebrant of the funeral Mass was the Rev. Richard Rinn, pastor of St. Viator.
The breadth of Gaughan’s friendships was touched on throughout the service. Reid talked of a conversation he had last week with business magnate Warren Buffett.
“I told him that Jackie Gaughan died, and he said, ‘I was 21, Jackie Gaughan helped somebody who didn’t have anything,’” Reid said as Buffett referred to himself. “‘He was my friend from Omaha.’ Well, Warren Buffett doesn’t make bad bets, and neither did Jackie Gaughan.”
Reid also talked of Gaughan’s generosity, as Gaughan had helped the husband of an employee who had been so badly injured in an automobile accident that he couldn’t work. The wife of the man sought out Gaughan, who helped him find a recovery and treatment program, as he had slipped into alcohol abuse.
“Jackie Gaughan helped people who were in his life,” Reid said. “He helped those you didn’t hear about.”
Reid was a frequent visitor to Gaughan’s office when Reid was in his teens, observing a photo of a man dressed in a cowboy outfit hanging on the wall. The man owed a gambling debt from a card game and was advised by Gaughan to leave the country or suffer grave consequences. The man did leave but returned against Gaughan’s advice and was dead within a week.
“Jackie said, ‘That picture reminds me to always pay your debts,’” Reid said. “Pay your debts, and be honest. That was Jackie.”
Wynn recalled working for Gaughan when Gaughan was a chief investor at Golden Nugget in the early 1970s. “If the Nugget does good, Jackie does good,” Wynn recalled the casino legend saying. “And if the Nugget does bad, Jackie does bad.”
Wynn remembered being assigned the fancy title of CEO at the Golden Nugget though was inexperienced in the resort business.
“He treated me with a lot of respect in that job and always stopped by my office moving very fast — he had a lot of businesses to keep track of — to give me advice,” Wynn recalled. “One time he said, ‘I saw the new Zodiac slots you’ve put out. Not bad. But you’ve led with the dollar slots at the door and quarter slots at the bar.
“You’d be better off with the quarters at the door and dollars at the bar.”
Wynn said, ‘You know, you’re right. I’ll do something about it. But Jackie said, ‘Don’t bother. I’ve already talked to the slot manager. They’ll be switched tomorrow.’ ”
Wynn folded in Gaughan with two other Las Vegas legends for whom he has spoken at funerals over the years: Horseshoe founder Benny Binion and former Gov. Michael O’Callaghan.
“Those men got the job done, made a better life for everybody over whom they felt a certain sense of responsibility,” Wynn said. “They took care of this city and the people in it.”
Tiberti recalled Gaughan saying, “You are never fully dressed unless you are wearing a smile” and once complimenting a new designer suit in which Gaughan looked particularly smart.
“He was so well-dressed with a suit and tie, and it was so unlike him to wear a custom-made suit,” Tiberti said. “I said, ‘That’s one great color, brown fabric, and it’s well-tailored, too.’ Jackie opened up the jacket, and the tag showed that the suit was tailored for Leo A. Daly II.”
That was Gaughan’s brother-in-law.
“That was how honest Jackie was,” Tiberti said, laughing. “He just opened it up.”
Epstein, whose family now owns and operates El Cortez, remembered Gaughan dining with his father several times a week at Barbary Coast’s Victorian Room restaurant, with Gaughan ordering strawberry chicken for each one of those dinners. Epstein also touched on Gaughan’s penchant for personal contact.
“I’d see him shake hands at the casino, with everybody, and them saying, ‘Wow! I just met Jackie Gaughan! He’s the owner!”
Michael Gaughan spoke last and thanked the myriad supporters, friends and family who turned out to pay tribute to his father. He made reference to Bishop Gorman High, which his father helped found and of which Gaughan was particularly proud.
He said that his father fell gravely ill so quickly that “for all intents and purposes, he died at the El Cortez.”
Then he stepped down with his father’s famous send-off: “It’s nice seeing all my friends here. Thanks for coming. And good night.”