GETTING TO KNOW YOU
I had met Kenny Guinn a couple of times, briefly, as he campaigned and then served as Governor of Nevada. He seemed a nice enough guy – outgoing, friendly, and approachable. It wasn’t until I wrote an essay in the Sierra Sage that was somewhat critical of the Governor, though, that I truly got to know him. The phone rang and it was Dema Guinn. “Is this Len Semas,” she inquired. Then ever so sweetly she intoned, “This is Dema Guinn and I read your article about Kenny. I know that if you met Kenny, you’d have a bit different opinion. I’d like you to join us for lunch this week.”
Well, that’s how it started. We did meet for lunch. Dema was as sweet as always, and Kenny was as outgoing and friendly as I knew him to be. I found out something else though. He was open to the ideas of others; he was genuinely kind; and he could take a little heat – and give it back! We talked and laughed and I left with a better understanding of the man behind the title, and a heightened respect for my new friend. Just as Dema said I would.
To begin to understand the uniqueness of this man, you have to go back to the beginning. He grew up in a poor family - dirt poor. His family came from Arkansas to Exeter, California with the mattress strapped to the roof of the family car. He didn't own his first new pair of shoes until high school. It was in grade school in Exeter, however, that he met the love of his life, Dema, and it would be a never ending romance.
Kenny excelled in athletics, and that took him through college, where he ultimately received a doctoral degree. He was a teacher, principal and scool superintendent. From then on, he never set his sights on lower than "number one." He Presided over a bank. He was the chairman of a utility company, Southwest Gas. He served as interim president of University of Nevada-Las Vegas (for a dollar a year). When he decided to serve in office, he didn't run for the school board, he ran for governor; and was elected - twice. Then, the amazing part, when he concluded his two terms, he left and went home, in the tradition of George Washington. This was an extraordinary man.
Kenny and I would meet many, many times subsequent to that first lunch. Each time I would leave with a little greater admiration, respect and love for a man I only wish I’d know even longer. The best I can do is share a few stories about him – and his lovely lifelong mate and best friend, Dema, to whom my heart goes out still.
THE OUT OF TOWNER
I was sitting at the bar at Adele’s Restaurant in Carson City with a friend and another gentleman whom we had just met who was from Ohio. Kenny and Dema came in with one of the finalists to paint the official governor’s portrait. As usual, Kenny “bellied” up to the bar just as any other patron and joined us. We’d been chatting about all manner of things for about a half-hour when the Ohio man looked to Kenny and said, “So what do you do?” Kenny replied simply, “I’m the Governor.” The man about fell off his chair. “You mean THE Governor? Like of Nevada? You mean I’ve been sittin’ here all this time talkin’ to the Governor of Nevada!” He was beside himself at the “regular guy” he’d been chatting with, as though he simply owned the gas station next door.
I ran into the gentleman from Ohio a couple of years later in Glen Eagles restaurant in Carson City. He walked in and recognized me and came running over. “Hey, remember me? I met you with the Governor a couple of years ago. Man, I gotta tell you, I have told that story to every person I know… me, sittin’ at the bar and talking with this guy who turns out to be the damn governor!”
Some people run for office to be someone, some do because they are someone. Kenny was that latter kind of man.
NO FIVE STAR HOTEL NEEDED
A bunch of friends (the Glen Eagle’s crowd) were going camping at the Walker River Resort and I ran into Kenny and Dema one night and said, “Why don’t you two come down and join us for breakfast on Sunday?” They said “sure – we’d love to.” Now most people would have rightly taken such a response as “Sure, fat chance - the Governor and his First Lady are going to come out to a campground and hang out with us for breakfast!”
When the black SUV drove slowly through the campground on Saturday, we knew who it was. The Governor did have, even contrary to his protestations, a security protocol! Then the next morning, there they were. They drove out and spent the day having breakfast and just hanging out with friends (and some of our dogs, including my pal Piper and First Dog, Mimi, a miniature poodle). The remarkable thing about the whole affair was that it was so unremarkable! No phalanx of security, no special treatment accorded or expected, and Dema – with the hefty “rock” on her finger – the first one to pitch in and do dishes!
Kenny and Dema never forgot their humble beginnings. On another occasion, a bunch of friends (at Dema’s request) got together for a home-cooked brunch at the Governor’s Mansion. Someone got there early and was shocked to see Dema, running the vacuum cleaner over the carpet before the guests arrived. It didn’t surprise me one bit. This was a woman whose first act in moving into the Mansion was to let the chef go. “I can cook,” she explained! Dema would return money from the Mansion budget every year Kenny was in office.
HE CAN WAIT
I’d been chatting with Kenny and some friends at our favorite watering hole. Kenny had his usual margarita (he seldom had more than one) and hit me on the arm. “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow morning? Come by the office – I have something I want to show you. About nine.” “Ok” is said, knowing it would be some sort of study or chart that we could debate about! Kenny always had a smile, as we would launch into one of our on-going discussions on one issue or another.
I walked into the office and said I was there to see the Governor, and before his assistant could get up, Kenny walked out. “Hey, Len – c’mon in.” As we moved into his office, he made an introduction to his assistant, “Say hello to Len Semas – one of my drinkin’ buddies.”
We sat down and the assistant offered coffee. Kenny had a report spread around the table and was busy drawing graphs and charts making his point. We chatted for quite a while, and the topic shifted to one thing or another. Just shootin’ the breeze. About that point, Kenny said, “Hey, have some more coffee.” I looked at my watch – it was about 10:30. With a knowing grin I said, “don’t you have to be somewhere pretty soon?” Kenny drawled, “Ah, don’t worry about that, we got plenty of time.” He was due to meet President Bush at noon in Reno. Can you imagine any other governor as nonchalant and unaffected? I can’t.
Kenny Guinn was a very special man. He was a simple man who never forgot his roots. He was an educated man who never lost his passion for learning, nor for assuring that opportunity to others. He was a dedicated man - to his lovely wife, to his family, to his friends, and to his beliefs. When I reflect on his tenure as governor, the term “politician” doesn’t come to mind; “statesman” does. I’ve lost a great friend, a man who earned my utmost respect, and a drinkin’ buddy, but I’m blessed for having enjoyed his presence in my life, as so many of us have.
Goodbye, my friend.
You raised the bar for every politician, or any other person in public life. If each of them would follow your example, there would be fewer impasses and less of an ideological chasm between one view and another. The Founders would be proud to have you among them - as I was.
Governor Kenny Guinn
An exemplary man, husband, politician and friend