Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2018

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Fifty years later, reflecting on what might have been

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy changed the course of this country and, therefore, the world.

I was not old enough to vote in the 1960 election, but, like all of my contemporaries, I was old enough to know that a sea change had taken place when JFK became president. There was a renewed spirit in America that we could do important things. Whether it was standing down the Soviet Union over missiles in Cuba or executing a near-term plan to put a man on the moon, a country challenged by the motto “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” transformed multiple generations into believing that our best days really were ahead of us.

And then, it ended almost as quickly as it began with a bullet that snuffed out the life of our president and the life he breathed into an entire generation of young Americans eager to participate in the renewed American dream.

That was 50 years ago. Everyone who was alive and cognizant on Nov. 22, 1963, knows exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news of Kennedy’s death was announced. I was in Mr. Butterfield’s class at Las Vegas High School. Tears came easily, questions abounded, and a lack of comprehension enveloped what was an otherwise very active and imaginative class.

The entire school was dismissed so we could go home and deal with the shock with our families.

I remember what I did because just two days earlier, on Nov. 20, 1963, the Las Vegas Sun newspaper building burned, or was burned, to the ground. My parents were in Europe at that time, so a long-distance call by my father’s assistant, Ruthe Deskin, was placed to him in Switzerland.

In those days, a call required some notice between the placing of the call and the recipient’s ability to accept it. That meant my parents had an hour or so to wonder what the great “emergency” was that would cause Ruthe to make such a call.

As my father later explained it, all manner of emergency ran through his head to the point where he had become convinced something terrible had happened to one of his children, a thought neither of my parents could bear to contemplate.

When Ruthe explained that an early-morning fire had burned the building to the ground, my father’s response was, “Is that all?”

Of course, losing the Las Vegas Sun was a crushing blow to Dad, but it paled in comparison to what he had conjured up. It was just a building, a press, some equipment and his newspaper. It could all be rebuilt. Thank God no one was hurt!

So two days later, when the tragic news of the Kennedy assassination came over the loudspeaker, there was no question what I would do. My friend Joel Goot and I headed to the Review-Journal, which had agreed to print the Las Vegas Sun for a short period of time while we made other arrangements. We loaded his father’s Chevrolet with editions of the paper and headed toward the airport.

We passed the recently burned building that was the home of the Sun and noticed the words “Kennedy killed” painted in large white letters on the only remaining wall. That was what newspaper people did in those days — they were first with the news, however tragic and however limited a sign on a wall was in delivering that difficult message.

We proceeded to sell every one of those “collector” newspapers to passengers disembarking for what had been a planned good time in Las Vegas but what had become a time of national mourning.

What I remember most, looking back at the months and years that followed my father’s decision to rebuild, was the incredible difficulty that defined his so deeply debt-burdened life. A lesser person might have packed up what was left and found something else to do. But Las Vegas and this newspaper were his life, so he went into hock in a way that would have crushed most mortals. He was that determined to make the Sun shine again over Las Vegas.

As I think about the past 50 years, I wonder how different Las Vegas would be today had Hank Greenspun decided to close the Las Vegas Sun and give the future of this city over to the Review-Journal and the people who saw a very different path for our city.

There are a couple of things I know for certain. First, Howard Hughes would never have moved to Las Vegas in 1966. That means six hotels that were conspicuously mob-owned and squarely in the sights of the U.S. attorney general, who couldn’t wait to shut them down, would not have been bought by the wealthiest man on the planet.

It also means that Wall Street and respectable banking institutions would not have leaped at the new opportunity to finance the growth of Las Vegas. And, yes, it probably means that Watergate might never have happened and Richard Nixon could well have served a full two terms (the subject of a future column). And Yucca Mountain would have already been opened, changing the face of tourism in Southern Nevada forever.

I also wonder, as so many others have, what our country would have been like had President Kennedy not been killed. What would have happened in Vietnam? Would the Cold War have ended sooner? And how would this country have grown and prospered without a Watergate?

But all we can do 50 years later is wonder, because life has moved on. That is what we do in this country. We are hit with adversity, sometimes the worst kind, and we deal with it and move on. Life is just different as a result.

So today, I think about losing President Kennedy at a time when our country needed him to live and how tragic that was. I also think about not losing the Las Vegas Sun at a time when there was no sane economic reason to keep it alive — and how fortunate Las Vegas is that the Sun still shines.

I also can’t believe it has been 50 years!

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

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