In memoriam: The man behind the name

I don’t know about you, but over the years, I’ve spent many days enjoying the ambiance of Nevada – from the desert heat and beauty of the land to the amazing entertainment and nightlife. Yes, of course, there is the gambling, but that isn’t really my thing.

I love the shows, the productions, the costumes and the array of entertainers – famous and nameless – who do their all to make us laugh and smile.

Through it all, there are names of people who are part of the gambling scene but who we really don’t know and wouldn’t ever recognize. One of them is the man behind the name “Ascuaga.” Any aficionado knows the name “John Ascuaga’s Nugget” and has probably spent many hours and much money in the establishment bearing that name.

Count me as one of them, but I never really thought about the man “John Ascuaga.” At least until today, when I received my copy of the July 15 edition of the Western Ag Reporter, my favorite Western newspaper.

There it was on the Obituary Page – noting the life and passing of John J. Ascuaga. For the first time the name had a face, and there was the story of the life he had led. The paper printed a photograph of the deceased, and it showed a kindly, friendly, gray-haired gentleman, without a bit of Vegas glitz, but with a bit of mischievousness in his eyes.

John Ascuaga was described as a “gaming pioneer, rancher, good friend, and beloved father and grandfather.” He died quietly at his home on June 28; he was 96.

He and his twin sister, Rose, were born in 1925 to Spanish Basque immigrants in Idaho, the youngest of four children. Life during the Depression was hard, but the children were raised with the “importance of faith, family and a work ethic.”

A hint of his future was noted in his high school yearbook, which predicted “he would own the biggest gambling den in Reno.” In the Army, he was stationed in Japan during the U.S. occupation. Later, he earned a B.S. degree in accounting from the University of Idaho and a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Washington State.

As often happens in life, people you meet early-on play an important part of your life. For Ascuaga, that was the case. During college summers while working as a bellhop, he met Dick Graves, who was impressed by his energy. Graves hired him as food manager for his Idaho operation.

When Idaho declared slot machines illegal in the state, Graves moved his business to Nevada. Asuaga went with him and in 1955 was named general manager of the Sparks location, a coffee shop with slots.

In 1958, after a short courtship, he married his love, Rose Ardens.

It was a deep love affair that lasted for 62 years until her death on Nov. 28, 2020. The couple had four children, two boys and two girls.

Business was good and the Nugget grew with Ascuaga guiding it.

The family remained in Sparks until 1970 when they moved to a 1,250-acre ranch, giving Ascuaga the opportunity to also pursue ranching and the Hereford breed. He also ran cattle on two other ranches, and he was widely known for his annual cattle drives, which combined work, fun, good food and gambling.

In 1960, when Graves retired, he sold the Nugget to Ascuaga on a handshake for $3.75 million over 12 years. It was paid off in seven years and the Nugget continued on to build a reputation for excellent service, personal service and gaming. It was, of course, Nevada.

Ascuaga pioneered special events, one being “The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off,” held over Labor Day weekend.

He also established an annual scholarship program that helps northern Nevada students attend college. In addition, for nearly 60 years, he supported Catholic Charities with holiday meals at St. Vincent’s Dining Room.

John Ascuaga is survived by his four children, his grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

But he is also survived by the many memories people have of his casino and resort and the good times people enjoyed there over the years.

The obituary also noted that anyone desiring to make a donation in his name should consider Catholic Charities of Northern Nevada; The Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada Reno; or The John Ascuaga Memorial Scholarship Fund at Bishop Manogue Catholic High School.

I don’t know about you, but I find it refreshing to read about a man who was a successful part of the gaming and resort scene in Nevada, who was a family man and who, it appears, did it all without scandal.

Requiescat in pace.

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