MY COLUMN: In memory of a great man, Bob Faiss

Once, I almost got Bob Faiss to dish.

After all my years of cajoling and needling, all those times I had tried to get him to tell stories out of school, to learn who he didn’t like or respect, I persuaded him to do something he had never done in my presence: Have a drink.

As he sipped the Margarita at an eatery in his beloved Boulder City, Faiss started to loosen up. I sensed the dirt was coming.

And then he did it. He reined himself in, regained his otherwordly discipline and natural affability and I had to settle for what might have been.

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When Faiss passed away Wednesday at the age of 79, many stories died with him. Oh the ones he could have told, having been a confidant of Grant Sawyer, the governor who stood up to the mob and Bobby Kennedy to modernize the gaming industry; having represented myriad high-profile gaming licensees, almost never unsuccessfully; having been around numerous local and state politicians, always leaving them with a smile.

“I don’t think he had an enemy,” his wife, Linda, told me last week about the state’s most influential gaming attorney. “He never said a bad word about anybody.”

And no one ever said a bad word about him in return, a tribute not just his reputation for integrity and fairness but because of that gentle voice, incandescent intellect and courtly manner.

When he saw you, Faiss’ face would open up with that smile of his, his eyes twinkling as he grabbed your hand. He made you feel, unlike so many of the phonies in the political world, that when he said, “How are you?” that he really wanted to know.

He was gracious without being ingratiating, solicitous without being smarmy. As my colleague Steve Sebelius put it, “Faiss had a way of making you feel as if you were the most important person in the room, no matter who else was in that room.”

I think ex-state Sen. Randolph Townsend, now a gaming commissioner, put it best about a man he dealt with in both venues: “He was a quiet giant of a human being, an iconic gaming figure, nurturing mentor, whose integrity, intelligence, quiet resolve, gentlemanly demeanor, and longevity, made him a better person than any of us are likely to ever meet.”

He was what fellow gaming regulator, Control Board Chairman A.G. Burnett, called “a remarkable example of what gentleman lawyers not only used to be, but should strive to be; his name carries an unblemished reputation that is only bolstered by his specialized expertise and his quiet and thoughtful demeanor.”

Faiss wasn’t always so quiet, though.

Former Gov. and Sen. Richard Bryan, who would go on to become Faiss’ law partner, recalled that his friend was student body president of Las Vegas High School 50 years ago and involved in student government at University of Nevada, Reno.  And the most careful and reserved man in Nevada also was…a cheerleader!

“Bob was very quiet,” Bryan recalled. “When Bob talked, people listened. But Bob was once very extroverted.”

How extroverted?

In 1956, when Hollywood came to campus looking for extras for the movie, “Hilda Crane,” the filmmakers were looking for extras and one speaking part, Bryan recalled. Guess who won the speaking part?

“Faiss had the speaking role, and he said, ‘Go ahead and kiss her,’” Bryan recalled. “One-take Bob.”

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That was not the Bob Faiss most people came to know.

He was a different man when he returned from Washington, DC, after getting his law degree and joining his mentor, Sawyer, at a fledgling law firm.  (You can see details of Faiss’ career, which began in journalism and included a stint in the White House, in Ed Koch’s marvelous obituary and a wonderful remembrance by Howard Stutz.)

He had adopted his low-key persona by the time I first met him at the Review-Journal, where he was giving a seminar on gaming law in the 1980s. At one point, he told the assembled reporters that he winced when he read about “juice attorneys.” It wasn’t fair, wasn’t always true.

I was young and brash, not to mention obnoxious, so I challenged him, basically giving him a John McEnroe-like, “Are you serious?”

He was. And he responded quietly and with gravitas, shutting me up and moving on.

Faiss was never a great source for a political reporter always on the hunt for intrigue and back room deals. He was there for many of those deals, but the chance of him spilling were nonexistent.

But if he had to explain to a legislator or reporter why a minimum room requirement made sense to have an unrestricted gaming license, he knew the history and the law. He wrote much of it when he was Sawyer’s aide and afterward. Nevada’s 21st governor has been credited with helping remake the gaming industry during his tenure from 1959 to 1967, and Faiss helped make that happen.

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A few years after that first meeting, I was thinking about leaving the RJ and going out on my own. I only told a handful of people I knew I could trust and who I thought would have the best insight.

Faiss was one of them. His enthusiasm and encouragement helped persuade me to take the leap and get over my fear.

If anyone could reassure, it was Bob Faiss.

Ask jittery lawyers who sought his counsel. Ask wavering lawmakers who needed his explanations. Ask friends who required smart advice.

“He was a shy person,” Linda Faiss recalled. “He was such a generous spirit. He always promoted his colleagues, never himself.”

Indeed, Faiss’ modesty was never false. He never wanted hosannas for anything, even if he deserved credit for so much. He helped build Lionel, sawyer & Collins into an international powerhouse. He is part of the reason gaming went from an outlaw industry to respectability. He is responsible for so many gaming bills passing that no one can count them all.

He also was part of one of the truly wonderful love stories in Nevada history. The Faisses were married later in life and for almost a quarter-century, but it didn’t look like it would ever happen.

They were close friends, and Linda was always setting Bob up on dates. “I set him up with all of my friends,” Linda said. “But he was too shy.”

Then one day, Linda’s close friend, Rose McKinney-James imparted the obvious. “She told me, ‘He really wants to be with you!” Linda remembered.

And so: Twenty-three years ago they were married, these two opposites. Bob, the reserved keeper of secrets, and Linda, the effervescent seeker of gossip. They were wonderful together, one of the happier couples I have ever known, rejoicing and reveling in their differences. They lit each other up; it was obvious to anyone.

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I hadn’t seen Faiss much during the last few years as he fell ill. I regret that.

But I will always have so many fond memories of this gentle Nevada giant. To wit:

Faiss knew how much I admired and liked Sawyer, and we had socialized together, including a memorable dinner at the former governor’s home. Late one evening in 1996,  I was working in my office and the phone rang. It was Faiss. His voice, uncharacteristically, was shaking.

“We lost him,” he said, simply. I knew immediately who he meant.

A few days later, delivering an eloquent eulogy for his idol, Faiss began, “The best man I ever knew died this week.”

Many are now saying the same about Bob Faiss.

 

(Photos courtesy of Boulder City Review and Las Vegas Review-Journal.)