City of Angels

  (Jeff Gale)

New York has George Soros. L.A. has Eli Broad. Vegas? Bet you thought everyone was busy wagering. Wrong. The city,  historically known more for carnality than compassion, has a range of denizens working not only for a better city but a better world.

The philanthropic know-how in Vegas arises from its humble beginnings as a desert outpost inhabited by a handful of intrepid settlers. If people wanted a school, they built one. If they wanted a watering hole, they would dig and drink from it. There wasn’t a legit financing source for creditless risk takers, so residents became self-made entrepreneurs, building a hometown from the ground up. That DIY mentality is in the DNA of what is now a megalopolis.

Las Vegas philanthropists aren’t bluffing. To get a glimpse of how they work, look at the contributions of these selfless citizens, who have been intent on turning their hometown into a beacon of social consciousness. 

Odds are if you’ve had an alcoholic beverage in any hotel, restaurant or casino in Nevada, you’ve sampled Larry Ruvo’s wares. The senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, the state’s largest wholesale liquor, wine and beer distributor, has been on the Vegas scene since he worked as night manager at the old Frontier Hotel. Now there’s a big addition to their legacy—the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. 

It’s a bittersweet accomplishment, since Larry’s father, Lou, a pioneer in the local restaurant world, passed away in 1994 after a two-year battle with Alzheimer’s. In tribute, the couple formed Keep Memory Alive to raise funds for the center and for research on neuro-degenerative diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s—all of which reduce cognitive function. “It started at a dinner at Spago,” says Camille. “Our friend John Paul DeJoria [of Paul Mitchell] said, ‘I want to raise money in honor of Lou. I’m giving $5,000.’ One by one, others shouted out donations in Lou’s name.”

That giving spirit sparked fundraising of the highest order. The Ruvos launched Power of Love, an annual benefit highlighted by an auction of lavish items, such as a Tahoe vacation package at the Ruvos’ getaway (with dinner cooked by Emeril Lagasse), tennis with Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf and a private show by Robin Williams. 

Larry began lecturing on the importance of fueling research for chronic brain disorders. He enlisted Dr. Zaven Khachaturian—the world’s foremost researcher on Alzheimer’s—as CEO, which brought in even more high-level experts. Then he called upon Frank Gehry. The architect’s response? “I don’t want to build anything in Vegas.” Larry’s retort? “It’s a shame a man like you wouldn’t use your celebrity to help cure a disease.” Three hours later, Gehry, a longtime supporter of Huntington’s research, signed on. The institute would be a mecca of world-class health care and a work of art in its own right. 

Recently, Larry scored a partnership with the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Already a leader in neurology, the clinic’s philosophy of patient-focused care appealed to the Ruvos. “When someone has a condition such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, the entire family suffers,” says Larry. “My mother needed back surgery after repeatedly lifting my father. The impact on the caregiver is huge.”

Situated downtown on 61 acres do-nated by the city of Las Vegas, the $100 million Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health is set to open on July 1. The metal and glass structure, a maze of 550 steel puzzle pieces, looks stunningly like a brain. Inside, a Wolfgang Puck Café, a Museum of the Mind and a vast events center make it like a small city. “Just think,” says Larry, “you can have your wedding at the institute and write the check for charity. What could be better?” Still, he and Camille don’t hesitate to give kudos to their community: “We’re making history, and people want to be a part of it.” 

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JAMES E. ROGERS: Higher Learning on Higher Ground
“I’m not a philanthropist. I’m a crusader,” says Rogers, a former attorney. After making his fortune as the owner of Sunbelt Communications, which operates 16 television stations in five western states, he has made education his raison d’être. And his passion hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2005, he was appointed chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. 

A crusader is exactly what Nevada colleges need. The state’s graduation rates are significantly lower than the national average. “We have a culture that doesn’t understand the need for education,” he says. “When a kid can make $1,000 a week waiting tables, he says, ‘Why should I go to college?’ What he can’t foresee is that he might not want to wait tables his entire life.” It doesn’t help that the state doesn’t offer financial aid programs. 

But Rogers is focused on bringing change. To motivate the best and brightest, he is putting effort into fighting budget cuts. “Our governor wants to cut it by 36 percent because we have too many high-priced educators,” he says. “We might as well close up shop if we do that. Educators are kind, sweet, passive people. We have to fight and publicize ourselves, not hide. I’m creating scholarships to keep students here and trying to get the state to offer loan programs.”

To get his point across, Rogers is an aggressive self-promoter, speaking to any community organization that will listen, using Sunbelt’s Las Vegas station as a bully pulpit to deliver hard-hitting editorials. “Sensationalism doesn’t add to the culture of our community. I want our stations to be leaders in education news.”

He learned about the value of giving from his former law and business partner Louis Wiener. “We made a fortune as TV-station owners. He said I should figure out all my expenses and then decide how much I needed to maintain my desired lifestyle. Like him, I would give away the rest to education, since that’s what was responsible for our success.” 

That was 14 years ago. He and his wife, Beverly, have donated $500,000 every month over the past 10 years toward higher education across the country, including two ACLU fellowships and the largest gift ever to an American law school—$137 million to the University of Arizona. “My wife’s a flaming liberal, and so am I.” 

Rogers shrugs off the idea of being labeled a philanthropist. “There’s no such thing. People want a return on their investment. For instance, if you give money to a law school that ranks 50th, you want to know that with your donation, it will rise to 45. Or if your mother died from breast cancer, you want to know they’re going to use your money to find a cure. Nobody just gives money away.”