Las Vegas Sun

December 21, 2014

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Where I Stand:

The melancholy of saying goodbye to dear friends

Saying goodbye to the people who make a difference in our community is not easy, but it is the way of the world.

I have been trying to figure out how to write about two people whose contributions to the betterment of this community have been significant. The challenge, of course, is that one has left us because death has taken her away; the other has just left us for another community, we hope to enjoy a long and healthy life.

In their own ways, Sharon Ensign and Neal Smatresk did so much to improve the kind and quality of life that the people of Las Vegas have been able to enjoy. Their leaving is, in one instance just sad while in the other, profoundly sad.

Sharon was married to well-known and now retired Las Vegas hotelman Mike Ensign. While he helped change the face of tourism over the past five decades, Sharon was happy raising an accomplished family and giving back to our community in a plethora of personal and charitable ways. She was the consummate insider when it came to helping others.

According to her son, former U.S. Senator John Ensign, who eulogized his mom at an overflowing Christ the King Catholic Church Thursday, the proudest achievement in his father’s overachieving life was getting Sharon to marry him almost 50 years ago. As a man who also married way over his head, I understand that.

The funeral celebration focused on Sharon’s abiding faith in God which, in large measure, explained her outsized commitment to institutions like the Assistance League and the Nevada Women’s Philanthropy as well as many and almost every other opportunity to help those in need. Helping others is a basic tenet of her faith.

Our community is far better for Sharon having lived here. And even though so many of the 2 million Clark County residents may not have known her or known of her, so many of them have been and will be helped in their own lives because of who she was and what she did.

For those who filled the church and thousands of others who knew Sharon, saying goodbye was difficult and very sad because she was taken all too soon. But, for the tens of thousands who will benefit from her kindness and commitment but will never know her, what she did during her life will live on.

That should be the kind of legacy for which we all strive.

•••

Earlier in the week, I was joined others in our community to say goodbye to Debbie and Neal Smatresk. The good news is they are just moving to Texas where he will be the president of the University of North Texas.

The gathering was the UNLV Foundation members who have worked tirelessly with President Smatresk to transform UNLV into what is finally an up-and-coming university. I witnessed grown men cry when they said goodbye, not just because Neal and Debbie were leaving town but because they knew the challenges that face UNLV without the kind of leadership Neal provided in his relatively short tenure.

My dear friend Irwin Molasky sat with Neal, and I heard him comment that Neal was the most effective president he has known because what he did for UNLV was achieved during the worst of times. And Irwin knows what he is talking about; he has known them all.

•••

The reason for discussing the sad passing of Sharon Ensign and her contributions to this place we call home and the community’s farewell to the Smatresks is to emphasize the fact that good things don’t happen just by accident.

It is far too easy for so many of us to just assume that everything good that happens in Las Vegas was going to happen anyway and that the efforts of individuals matter little in the equation of success. The truth is what people do on behalf of others is what really matters. It is the lesson that I heard the Rev. Joe Annese talk about at the funeral, and it is the message I hear whenever the UNLV Foundation gathers together to figure out how this community is going to move UNLV up the ranks of the great universities.

There is no longer any question about the connection between a first-class university and a first-class, high quality city. You really can’t have one without the other. By the same token, there is no room in the rational world to question the relationship between the good deeds of one individual and the good luck of so many others who need a helping hand.

Neal Smatresk and Sharon Ensign did more than their share while they were in this community. Las Vegas was lucky to have them both.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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