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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Las Vegas says goodbye to Jackie Gaughan

19 March 2014

LAS VEGAS -- The memorial service for gaming industry pioneer Jackie Gaughan was as much a window into Las Vegas history as it was a celebration of the life of the downtown casino operator, who died last week at age 93.

Longtime customers and employees of Gaughan, who owned parts of eight casinos during his 64-year gaming career, filled the 900 seats in St. Viator Catholic Church Monday morning.

They were joined by many names associated with Las Vegas’ downtown gaming history, such as casino owners Jack Binion, J. Kell Houssells Jr., Bill Boyd and Steve Wynn. Politicians, business executives, tourism officials, organized-labor leaders and average, everyday residents came to pay tribute.

Longtime casino operator Burton Cohen, who ran several Strip hotel-casinos in his career, said that when he first arrived as “the new kid in town 50 years ago,” it was tough to break into the business.

“But Jackie accepted me from the start,” Cohen said.

Wynn, chairman of Wynn Resorts Ltd., mentioned the number of current and former gaming leaders in the audience at the outset of one of the four eulogies delivered during the nearly two-hour memorial, which included a traditional Catholic Mass.

“All the homeboys are here,” Wynn said.

Longtime casino industry host Gene Kilroy said, “It’s fitting that Jackie’s services take place on St. Patrick’s Day,” paying tribute to his fellow Irishman.

Gaughan was remembered as a hands-on casino owner who knew his employees and his customers by their first names. He would walk his casino floors throughout the day, greeting guests while taking on even the most menial tasks.

Gaughan was most closely associated with the downtown’s El Cortez Hotel & Casino. He parted with that last piece of his empire in 2008, but the Epstein family, longtime friends and business associates of Gaughan who acquired the majority ownership in the casino, allowed him to remain in his penthouse apartment and cared for him.

“Jackie loved doing favors for people, and he loved his customers and his employees,” attorney Lawrence Epstein said during a eulogy delivered on behalf of his father, Kenny Epstein. “The greatest legacy Jackie is leaving behind is his family, but also his El Cortez family as well.”

Gaughan is survived by his son, South Point owner Michael Gaughan, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Race car driver Brendan Gaughan, Michael Gaughan’s son, said “the outpouring of love and respect for Grandpa” from the Las Vegas community “has been overwhelming.” A day doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t mention Jackie Gaughan, he said.

“He was just Grandpa to us, but he meant so much to everyone,” Brendan Gaughan said, recounting that when he dealt cards at the El Cortez customers recognized him as Michael’s son and Jackie’s grandson.

During the past few years, Jackie Gaughan would come downstairs from his apartment, visit with El Cortez staff and executives, and play poker in the casino for a few hours. He ate breakfast and lunch every day with the El Cortez officials.

“That’s a big void that we noticed this past week,” said El Cortez chief financial officer and partner Joe Woody, who served as a pallbearer. “We’re missing him.”

Woody said he knew little about the gaming industry when he first went to work at the El Cortez 26 years ago, but Jackie Gaughan became his mentor.

“He told me, ‘Honesty, character and morals are 75 percent of the job. I can teach you everything else,’?” Woody said.

Gaughan also mentored El Cortez general manager Mike Nolan, who has been at the property since the 1970s.

When Nolan was the casino’s slot manager, Gaughan would call him every day between 3 and 5 a.m. to check on the wagering activity from the night before.

“At 6 a.m. we’d visit all the other casinos on Fremont Street and check out the slot machines,” Nolan said. “No one knew slot machines like Jackie.”

Wynn said he learned of Gaughan’s knowledge of the games after he bought controlling interest in the Golden Nugget. Gaughan owned a piece of the casino and sat on the Golden Nugget’s board.

Wynn said Gaughan once suggested swapping locations of his 25 cent slot machine and $1 machines.

“?‘I’ll get on it,’?” Wynn recalled telling Gaughan. “?‘Don’t worry,’ Jackie said. ‘I already spoke to your slot guys and told them to take care of it.’ What was good the Golden Nugget was good for Jackie Gaughan.”

Gaughan was also eulogized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Tito Tiberti, a longtime business partner of Gaughan.

Wynn commented on Jackie Gaughan’s deep Catholic faith, saying “it took four priests” to conduct the services.

Michael Gaughan ended the service with a quote his father used a few years ago when he was honored in Las Vegas.

Printed on the back of a booklet mourners received as they entered the church, it simply said, “It’s nice to see all my friends here. Thanks for coming. And goodnight.”