Sunday, July 25, 2010

Dr. Kenny Guinn

The Amazing Dr. Kenny Guinn

In the midst of the Great Depression in rural Garland Arkansas, a poor, illiterate family had a son they named Kenny. Not Kenneth or Ken, just Kenny. As times grew more difficult for the family they heard that crops needed to be picked in the San Joaquin Valley of California so they packed up, left Arkansas behind, and headed for the Land of Milk and Honey. They settled in the small farming community of Exeter where 10-year old Kenny became fast friends with another poor kid, Bob List from nearby Visalia, and a pretty little third-grader named Dema Lee Lane. The three dirt poor kids became lifelong friends.

Bob List was an excellent student. He graduated from high school and attended Utah State University then law school at the University of California. He made his home in Nevada, practiced law and went into politics. In 1979 Robert List was elected Governor of the State of Nevada. By this time his buddy Kenny and friend Dema had also married and moved to Nevada.

Kenny’s father could not read so 10-year old Kenny would bring the newspaper home each day and in a family ritual, read it to his Dad. As he grew Kenny became movie-star handsome, an excellent student, and a star multi-sport athlete in high school. Bob List tells that story that one afternoon a school car pulled up to the Guinn home, which was little more than a hovel. The Superintendent had Kenny in the car and brought him to the front door and said, “Mr. Guinn, I had to bring Kenny home to tell you that he was named valedictorian of the school.”

Kenny’s father became red-faced and said, “Don’t worry Sir. If he did that thing at school I’ll take care of him at home and tomorrow he will apologize to the whole school and never do that again.”

Kenny was recruited by many colleges and initially attended USC to play football, but once he learned they would not let him play basketball as well, he returned to nearby Fresno State to become a star in both sports. Kenny completed his degree, married his childhood sweetheart Dema, and began teaching high school. In 1964 and Dema moved to Las Vegas where Kenny became a school administrator. Five years later he completed his Doctorate and became Superintendent of Schools in the fast-growing Clark County (Las Vegas) School District. During his nine-year tenure as Superintendent Dr. Kenny Guinn implemented outstanding programs, and kept the District fiscally responsible.

In his first State of the State address Governor Guinn spoke about success when he said, “I believe we must measure success by how we are able to care for the most fragile of our citizens – our children, the elderly, and those who are disabled. We cannot afford to do everything but there are some things we cannot afford not to do.” And he walked the walk by creating such programs including the Senior Rx program to assist seniors with medical costs, the Nevada Mammovan program that provided mammograms to the uninsured, and the Nevada Check-up program for children. During his terms as governor the number of children served by the Check Up program increased from fewer than 2,000 to more than 30,000. Time Magazine recognized Gov. Guinn as one of the five best governors in America.

Two traits became apparent during Dr. Guinn’s tenure as superintendent; he outworked everybody on his staff, and he was a man of the people. He often made surprise visits to schools and was equally comfortable talking with the custodians, cafeteria workers, children, teachers, or principals.

In 1978 he left the school district to become vice-president of a local bank then Chairman of the Board of another bank. From there he accepted the position of Chairman and CEO of Southwest Gas Corporation. In 1994 when UNLV was rocked by a scandal that forced the university president out, Kenny accepted the position of interim president with the proviso that his salary goes to student scholarships and he would work for $ 1.00 per year. He got the university back on an even keel and by this time was one of the most popular leaders in the state of Nevada.

Many of his friends as well as other movers and shakers in Nevada encouraged him to enter politics but he resisted – until 1998 when, with no previous political experience, he ran for Governor of Nevada against a popular ex-Las Vegas mayor. He won the race and served two terms as Governor. Although he ran on the Republican ticket, he was often characterized as being, “neither Republican nor Democrat nor Independent, but an advocate of the people of Nevada.”

During his stint as governor the state began its sideways skid economically, reflecting the national economic crisis. He spent countless hours, again outworking everybody else, trying to balance the state budget. When cuts had to be made his comment was always, “Save the funding for the children.”

When the tobacco lawsuit was settled Governor Guinn used Nevada’s share of the money to establish “Millennium Scholarships,” that would pay college tuition and other assistance for students who showed academic promise.

What are the odds that a small, rural farming community like Exeter, CA would produce two governors and a first lady? I’m sure they are incalculable. But it did.

Dema and Kenny Guinn moved into their home near downtown Las Vegas some 32 years ago. It was there they reared two sons and was the home Kenny used as a home base as he became the most popular man in the state of Nevada. When not working on one of his many project or for the betterment of Nevada citizens, Kenny loved to tinker around the house. So it was no surprise to Dema last week when he told her he was going to blow away the pine needles from the roof gutter. At age 73 he was healthy, fit, and still outworked most people half his age. She heard the ladder scrape and rushed outside to find her husband of 54 years lying on the ground next to the ladder. The ambulance rushed him to nearby University Medical where he was pronounced dead. Cause of death has yet to be determined.

Kenny Guinn had a huge resume; student, athlete, teacher, superintendent, executive, governor, and enough to fill a volume. But his life was devoted to his family and the people of Nevada. Dr. Kenny C. Guinn was my friend and a hero.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Wind Beneath my Wings,” originally done by the gospel group, Mighty Clouds of Joy.

Dr. Forgot

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