Northern Nevada philanthropist John Ascuaga, an icon in the Silver State’s gaming industry best known for being the patriarch of the heralded Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks, died Monday. He was 96. “We are truly saddened to hear of John Ascuaga’s passing, and our heartfelt sympathy goes out to his family and all the members of the community who knew him and benefited from his impact,” Anthony Marnell III, CEO of Las Vegas-based Marnell Gaming, owners of the Nugget, said in a Monday statement. “John was not only an icon in Northern Nevada and throughout the region, he was also one of the true pioneers in Nevada gaming and helped shape the direction of the entire state.”
Ascuaga purchased the Nugget from founder Dick Graves in 1960 for a reported $3.8 million and operated it for the next 53 years, “shepherding the growth and expansion from a coffee shop with a few slot machines to the two-tower hotel, convention center, full-service casino and multi-outlet dining facility it became,” according to a Monday press release from Marnell Gaming.
“(John) was a tireless community philanthropist who gave generously to graduates throughout Northern Nevada through the Nugget Scholarship Program,” according to the release. “He also partnered with St. Vincent’s Dining Room to feed the homeless every Thanksgiving and Christmas and supported charities and fundraising events too numerous to mention not only in Nevada, but across the western states.”
According to a Monday story from The Nevada Independent, after John retired, the Ascuaga family sold the Nugget in 2013 to an investment group, which subsequently sold it in 2016 to Marnell Gaming. The company has since upgraded and expanded the property, including the addition of an outdoor events center.
In addition to his philanthropy and casino ventures, Ascuaga owned the Jacks Valley Ranch, a 1,200-acre mix of pasture, scrubland and forest located at the base of the Sierra Front. Ascuaga bought the Carson Valley property in 1969 from Bud Grant. The ranch was previously owned by Mac C. Fleishmann.
“I’m just an average guy, like anybody else,” Ascuaga told The Record-Courier newspaper in a 1980 interview. “I enjoy my work, but I also insist on spending a lot of time with my family. And the tremendous beauty of this part of the country always amazes and excites me.”
Ascuaga was born to Basque sheepherding and farming immigrants in western Idaho and worked his way through college to receive accounting and hotel management degrees. He had been in Northern Nevada for a year in 1955 when the Nugget opened as a 60-seat coffee shop opposite its current site, according to the interview.
Longtime Carson Valley residents remember Ascuaga’s elephants, Bertha and Tina, in the annual Carson Valley Days Parade.
“Ascuaga and his family’s impact will be felt for many years to come throughout the West, and his memory and legacy will always be held in the highest regard at the Nugget,” the Marnell press release concluded.
Statements and media reports came pouring in Monday from all corners of the Silver State and beyond to commemorate Asguaga’s life.
In a Monday story from the Reno Gazette Journal, John Farahi, CEO and co-chairman of Reno's Atlantis Casino Resort Spa parent company Monarch Casino and Resort, lauded Ascuaga’s efforts to elevate the entire Northern Nevada gaming industry.
“He was definitely a pillar in our community,” Farahi told the newspaper. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for him, his honesty and his integrity. He called it the way he saw it and I, for one, learned from him. He was a mentor.”
Meanwhile, in a lengthy Monday statement, Gov. Steve Sisolak noted that John and his wife, Rose, and their children were fixtures in both the business and in the Northern Nevada community.
“John walked the casino floor daily and popped into the restaurants to visit with tourists and employees alike. From scholarships to countless fundraisers to special events, they made sure John Ascuaga’s Nugget was there to help,” Sisolak said. “.. John was a businessman who hired top-name entertainers to perform in the Celebrity Showroom and an innovator who introduced elephants Bertha, Tina and, later, Angel, who performed on stage and participated in parades and festivals around the state. His own love of ranching and the Old West was reflected throughout the resort in his branding iron collection and artwork, such as the character ‘Last Chance Joe,’ and the Nugget’s famous Golden Rooster.
“Always friendly, always smiling, always welcoming, John Ascuaga was the quintessential Nevadan.”