Las Vegas Sun

May 21, 2019

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Gary Thompson, former Sun editor and Caesars spokesman, dies at 73

Gary Thompson

Gary Thompson

Of the many honors and awards former Las Vegas Sun Managing Editor Gary Thompson received, none, he said, was more meaningful than when former Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan declared, “I’d share a foxhole with that man.”

O’Callaghan, deceased chairman and executive editor of the Sun, made that comment to Thompson’s late wife, Sun Vice President Sandy Thompson, praising Gary for his work ethic, loyalty, integrity and intestinal fortitude.

“Here was Mike O’Callaghan, a war hero who had lost a leg in battle, saying that he had that kind of trust in me,” Gary Thompson said in a 2013 interview. “In my mind, there could be no greater honor.”

Gary Edward Thompson was a dedicated, thorough, old-school newspaperman who at the height of his journalism career switched paths and served for more than a decade as a spokesman for Caesars Entertainment. He was 73.

During his 22 years at the Sun, Gary Thompson had cultivated many powerful business and political sources who regularly called him with valuable news tips. One such figure was reclusive billionaire candy maker Forrest L. Mars, a Las Vegas resident who was one of the world’s richest men.

Mars, inventor of the M&Ms and Mars candy bar, every day read many newspapers, though as a rule he refused to be interviewed by reporters — that is, until he started following Thompson’s stories in 1979, about a year after Gary had moved to Las Vegas and started working for the Sun.

Thompson and Mars got together more than a half-dozen times over several years to discuss local and national issues.

In 1998, upon Mars’ death at age 95, Thompson revealed that the only stipulation for those conversations was that Thompson could not quote Mars or write a story about him — though Thompson could and did use some of the wealth of business industry information that Mars had shared with him to smoke out other stories.

One of those tips led to Thompson writing in 1980 a highly acclaimed series of stories on the dangers of inflation, which at that time was running rampant at about 17 percent. In a letter to Thompson, Mars called the series “better than Milton Friedman,” referring to the writings of the famed Nobel Prize-winning economist.

“He (Mars) taught me to always look at the big picture,” Thompson said in 1998. “That’s what he did, and it was effective.”

Thompson became the Sun’s business editor in 1979, city editor in 1980 and managing editor on Nov. 21, 1980, the day the old MGM Grand — now Bally’s — burned, killing 85 people and injuring about 700 others.

After being alerted to the tragedy by a phone call to his home at 7:30 a.m., Thompson calmly and efficiently assigned his entire news staff to provide extensive coverage of what became the biggest story in Southern Nevada history.

Thompson helped launch the Sun’s Showbiz Magazine, an entertainment weekly that featured the only cable TV guide in the valley. At its peak, Showbiz was placed in every hotel room in Las Vegas.

Also, Thompson, who left his managing editor’s position in 1989, wrote in-depth Sun political columns in the early 1990s.

Throughout the 1990s, Thompson covered the rise of the megaresort era that included the implosions of several venerable casinos from Las Vegas’ Golden Age.

In the Friday, June 28, 1996, Sun editions, Thompson wrote poetically of the pending closure of the iconic Sands Hotel to make way for the Venetian:

“There’s one sure bet in Las Vegas this weekend: Tears will be flowing at the Sands on Saturday night. It’s the last night in the life of the fabled resort that personified Las Vegas’ glitter and glamour from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, creating millions of memories for generations of gamblers. …”

Thompson left the Sun in February 2000 to join Harrah’s Entertainment, now Caesars Entertainment Corp., as director of corporate communications. Caesars operates 63 casino-resorts around the world including Caesars Palace, Paris, Bally’s, Flamingo, Harrah’s, The Quad, Planet Hollywood and the Rio. At one time or another, Thompson has been quoted in news releases from each of those properties.

On Aug. 9, 2002, Gary’s first wife, Sandra “Sandy” Thompson, who had worked her way up the ladder from copy editor in 1978 to managing editor by the early 1990s, was killed by a driver under the influence of marijuana who crashed his van into her car that was stopped at a traffic light. A local school was named in her honor.

From 2004 to 2007, Gary Thompson, a skilled poker player who for many years had entered events at the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe, served as director and spokesman for the WSOP after the tournament moved to the Rio.

Thompson was born Dec. 4, 1945, in Danbury, Conn, the eldest of six children. He attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., before joining the Air Force.

Between 1965 and ’68, he served in Germany and Pakistan. While stationed at a U.S. base near the notorious Khyber Pass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at Peshawar, Thompson worked with an Air Force unit that intercepted Soviet and Chinese radio transmissions.

Gary’s younger brother Robert was killed in the Vietnam War.

Gary Thompson began his journalism career in the mid-1970s in New York, working for Dow Jones News Service. At the Sun, Thompson started as a business writer but quickly switched to writing in-depth investigative stories.

One of those projects was a comprehensive series on the multibillion-dollar lost Tiger’s Treasure gold of the Philippines. It took him and another Sun reporter more than a year to research, involved more than 1,000 interviews — several with CIA operatives — and resulted in Thompson traveling throughout the United States, Australia, the Philippines and Europe.

Thompson also wrote about — and nearly came to blows on a TV news talk show with — Las Vegas FBI special agent Joseph “Yobo Joe” Yablonsky. Thompson criticized the FBI’s alleged illegal wiretappings of Las Vegas political figures.

Over the years, Thompson won several Nevada Press Association awards, including story of the year. But Thompson said he could not remember what year or for what story he won the award. He said he could not even recall where he had stashed that plaque and his many other writing awards — nor did he care.

Thompson’s office walls at Caesars Palace were long bare except for a lone unframed 8-by-10-inch photo — clumsily pinned to a small bulletin board — of Thompson standing behind gambler Doyle Brunson at a poker table. However, photos of his late wife Sandy, their daughter Kelly and his current wife, Gina, and her children adorned his desk.

Thompson was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 and for more than a dozen years had waged a courageous battle against the disease, which in 2009 spread to his bones.

“I have cancer — so what?” Thompson said in a 2013 interview. “I still consider myself the luckiest man alive. In my lifetime, I have been truly blessed by being married to two phenomenal women, had three wonderful children and I am very happy. My motto has always been, ‘live, love and laugh.’”

Thompson rarely, if ever, let his disease stand in the way of enjoying his favorite pastime, golf, though he admitted in 2013 that he had to take painkillers before and after each 18-hole game to ease the agony deep in his bones.

Thompson is survived by his second wife Gina Thompson; his daughter Kelly Thompson; a stepson Weston Schneider; and a stepdaughter Kayla Schneider, all of Las Vegas; and four sisters, Diane Manzi of Newtown, Conn., Linda Pickwick, of Bethel, Conn., Kathy Thompson of Albuquerque, N.M., and Terry Thompson of Danbury, Conn.

A funeral will be held at 11 a.m. April 27 at Palm Cheyenne Mortuary, 7400 W. Cheyenne Ave.

Ed Koch is a retired longtime Sun reporter, who was hired at the newspaper by Gary Thompson in June 1984.