Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2014

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J. Patrick Coolican:

I’m taking leave; don’t screw things up in my town while I’m gone

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Sun columnist Patrick Coolican has been awarded the Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and will take a leave of absence from the Sun until next summer. This is his final column until then.

For my last couple of columns, I had the genius idea to investigate a suicide at the jail and spend some time at the Regional Justice Center, soaking in the sadness of ruined lives. Fun way to close it out.

I arrived here in 2006 — at the height of the boom times, when if you took a different route to work every few weeks, you’d see a new condo or office complex that had risen from the desert crust.

Open trucks filled with construction materials filled the 215, and their bumper stickers read, “Not responsible for falling debris,” as if you could just proclaim your freedom from responsibility.

It was a glorious time, the go-go years. Las Vegas was smug in the knowledge that we had cracked the code — while other cities languished in the new globalized economy, Las Vegas was growing and a lot of people were sharing in the good times.

If you looked a little harder, though, you could feel a disturbance in the Force. The schools, the health care, the child welfare system, and who were all these construction workers building homes for, other than themselves? Canaries in the gold mine. I told everyone I came across of my skepticism of the boom and its lack of sustainability, and I loved playing this role. I had been the agnostic in my Catholic schools, the peace-loving liberal in a family of military conservatives.

As a town of a single, powerful industry, Las Vegas is a good place to be a dissenter, and I got lucky — it actually happens a lot in Las Vegas — and was named columnist.

I’m reminded of a great line from the thinker Hannah Arendt: “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.”

And yes, I had come to love Vegas and to assume a small bit of responsibility for it.

Mostly, of course, this meant pointing out my adopted city’s flaws! The paltry money we spend on child protective services, education, mental health. The mutual back-scratching club that constitutes our government. The electric utility. The water utility. Violent pimps. Reno. Donald Trump.

But as much as I love calling out the lies and incompetence, what has been as rewarding as anything else has been getting to know the people who are so devoted to building community. They’re doing so in the face of long odds, especially given a civic ethos that embraces the self over the city and immediate gratification over patient legacy building.

Great teachers and debate coaches and social workers and architects. A priest who comforts the grieving. An addict helping other addicts. A football coach who acts as a father figure to legions of young men.

So, in the midst of my recent sobering times at the courthouse and the jail, I also met Sean Adams, who gives me cause for optimism. Until recently, Adams, 22, was homeless, sleeping in parks or washes or wherever he could rest his head around Boulder Highway. He found his way to Crossings, a transitional housing complex for young people who are working or going to school.

Adams started volunteering at Crossings’ parent organization, St. Jude’s Ranch in Boulder City, a complex for abused and neglected children. Under the stellar leadership of Christine Spadafor, St. Jude’s Ranch and its various programs, once on the brink of insolvency, are now serving more than 300 children.

Adams today has a job at St. Jude’s Ranch in Boulder City, doing whatever maintenance or clerical work is needed around the complex. His bus commute is between 2½ and 4 hours long — each way. He’ll begin classes at the College of Southern Nevada in the fall with the hopes of eventually working in child development at a place like St. Jude’s. Amazing stuff.

As I take my leave, I’d like to thank people like Sean Adams and all the other brave souls who are building community in Las Vegas. You help me ward off the cynicism that can come from working in a newsroom here, or anywhere.

And thanks to you, the readers. And especially you commenters — faraway friends and family say they come for my columns, but they stay for the commenters.

One final thing, Las Vegas. This is from a local minister who said it perfectly: If you keep doing what you always done, you’ll keep gettin’ what you always got.

Until next time.

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