Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The recipients of Elaine and Steve Wynn’s Golden Nugget college scholarships have over the years occasionally called the couple, offering updates on their latest academic achievements or career milestones.
Only one of those calls has come from outer space.
NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, a recipient of the Golden Nugget Atlantic City scholarship in 1986, spent three months — from March to May — aboard the International Space Station. When he dialed Steve Wynn from orbit, the call went to voice mail.
The Wynns played a recording of the voice-mail message at a small gathering they hosted to honor Reisman, who was in Las Vegas last week.
To the astronaut’s mild embarrassment, Elaine Wynn also read aloud his scholarship application essay, in which he outlined his plans for a career as a spy.
“That wasn’t as embarrassing as the photo she dug up of me from 1986,” Reisman said.
Reisman recalled first meeting the Wynns at the awards banquet for Golden Nugget scholars.
Steve Wynn “encouraged all of us to keep in touch,” said Reisman, 40. “I guess I just kept it more than some of the other students. The Wynns were always so glad to hear from me, and they would give me updates on what they were doing. It was completely unexpected and really nice.”
After earning undergraduate degrees in economics and mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, Reisman went on to earn his master’s and doctorate from the California Institute of Technology. He spent two years in the space and technology division at TRW, which had government aerospace contracts, and he was selected to be a NASA mission specialist in 1998.
Among the items Reisman carried on his mission was a handsome tiger’s-eye necklace on loan from the Wynns. The Dalai Lama had blessed it, and the potential for good karma wasn’t lost on Reisman.
“This was risky business,” Reisman said with a laugh. “I was grateful for any help I could get.”
During the 17 years the Wynns operated the Golden Nugget scholarship program, 554 scholars shared more than $5 million in financial aid.
The scholarships for New Jersey students ended in 1987, after the Golden Nugget Atlantic City was sold. The Nevada arm evolved into a scholarship program for children of Wynn’s employees bound for UNLV and UNR. It was phased out after MGM purchased the Wynn’s Mirage Resorts in May 2000.
The beneficiaries of the Golden Nugget scholarships were largely valedictorians and salutatorians, top students who, as Elaine Wynn put it, “were going to make it, no matter what.”
Less likely to succeed, Elaine Wynn realized, were the thousands of students for whom graduating high school was far from a given. That’s why she joined forces with Communities in Schools, a national dropout prevention organization that matches needy campuses with individuals, organizations and businesses interested in helping.
Part of the NASA mission “is to inspire the next generation of explorers,” Reisman said.
Elaine Wynn adopted that mission a long time ago, he said.
“It’s more than just a check in the mail,” Reisman said. “In addition to the financial opportunities, Mrs. Wynn goes out to the schools, she provides encouragement to the students. And often, that’s just as important.”