Mayor Who Made His Mark
A businessman, who got into politics to stop a few crooked police officers from robbing him blind, became one of the city’s more well-regarded leaders.
But those cops. Someone had to do something.
Gragson was born in 1911, and the Great Depression found him riding the rails, seeking work. In the fall of 1932, he was headed for the site of what would be Hoover Dam.
“I caught a freight train out of Oklahoma,” he recalls. “Six days later, I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada, at 11 o’clock at night.” His personal fortune totaled $2.70, more than enough for the 25-cent blue plate special at the Busy Bee Cafe — a full-pound hamburger steak, potatoes and gravy, and coffee.
Gragson landed a job at the dam, worked for two weeks, but failed the first company physical — he had a hernia — and was dismissed. It wasn’t such a blow. He was earning 40 cents per hour on the dam job. Three days later, he went to work at $1 an hour driving a truck for J.C. Compton, a road construction outfit.
He continued to correspond with Bonnie Henley, his childhood sweetheart back to Mansfield, Ark. In December 1934 they married. The car drive back to Las Vegas was the honeymoon.
“I married her Friday, and left for Las Vegas Saturday.”
Bonnie was not impressed with the little railroad town.
“She didn’t think anything of it at all,” Gragson laughs. “Fact is, she told me that I could stay here if I wanted to, but she was going back.”
Gragson called upon the diplomatic skills that would serve him so well in later years. “I walked her out on the street, showed her the bank, the other buildings. Then I told her, ‘One of these days I’m going to be mayor of this town.’ ”
He was only kidding, he now admits, but Bonnie stayed.
For a short time, they left for the heartland to run a dairy. “I got tired of the day and night work, 16-18 hours a day, so we bundled everything up and came back to Las Vegas.”
Once back, the couple went to work for Pete Peccole, who operated a bar and cafe at Railroad Pass. Peccole needed someone to run the cafe and he also needed a waitress. The deal was not based so much on altruism on Peccole’s part as on the fact that the Gragsons came as a package deal.
“Two for the price of one,” is the way Gragson puts it.
Back then everyone was an entrepreneur. Everyone had a real estate deal going on the side. Gragson’s first enterprise was The Little Secondhand Store, opened Dec. 18, 1937. It was in the 100 block of South First Street, and Gragson was a partner. He says he kept the place stocked by scouting the town for cast-offs, the discards of the upper crust.
“When I paid the first month’s rent, I had a dime left in the cash register,” he recalls. “But after that, I didn’t have any trouble.” Used furniture was a growth industry in a blue-collar town like Las Vegas.
In 1944, Gragson was drafted. For the same reasons that precluded employment at Hoover Dam, he was excused from military service.
However, in his brief absence, his partners closed the secondhand store. So he went to work for a while at Basic Magnesium, then went into partnership in a furniture store with George Skylstead at 1100 E. Charleston Ave. A few years later, he sold his interest to Skylstead and opened his own store at 808 N. Main St., a piece of land he still owns.
He began to sell television sets before there was actually a television station in town. But one was being planned, and Gragson owned an 18 percent interest in it. It would become KLAS-TV, Channel 8.
“Later I sold my interest to Hank Greenspun, and I made a mistake by doing that,” says Gragson. “But I needed the money to expand my furniture business.” Specifically, he wanted to buy more television sets.
“I got into the TV business because I knew it was coming. My TVs were Admirals, and they had a radio, TV and a record player. My theory was that people would buy them, use the radio and record player now, and watch the TV when it came on the air.”
They sold so well the Admiral Co. rewarded Oran and Bonnie with a trip to London for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
In those early days, local police officers often carried keys to businesses. They were supposed to allow cops access in case of a burglary or fire.
After a few strange incidents in which his door seemed to unlock itself during the night, Gragson began to get the picture. “I locked the door myself; I knew it was locked,” he recalls. “At about 11 that night, I’d get a call from the police telling me that they’d found my door open, and a television stolen.”
This happened three or four times, Bonnie adds.
“If they hadn’t have done that, I would never have run for mayor,” Gragson declares. His idyllic image of his hometown was replaced with an ugly picture of a place so corrupt police could burglarize with impunity.
He believes to this day that the city manager, A.H. Kennedy, was aware there were burglars with badges. “I thought he had to know, and he didn’t stop it.”
By mid-1960, an investigation had uncovered a full-blown burglary ring within the Las Vegas Police Department. The director of midnight operations was officer Alfred Mazzuca who, after running amok, burning his house and beating his wife, was dismissed from the force. Shortly thereafter, Mazzuca alleged that while a police officer, he had pilfered tens of thousands of dollars worth of goods from businesses all over the valley and, after his dismissal, he had continued his activities “with police protection.” The City Commission promptly suspended Police Chief Ray Sheffer and City Manager Kennedy. The reasons became apparent when the commission released several confidential statements given to Lt. B.J. Handlon by officers Joseph McDonnell, William Foster, Mark O’Brien and Rulon Lee.
Kennedy and Sheffer were accused of malfeasance in office for failing to adequately discipline the officers, and both were subsequently indicted by a Clark County grand jury. The charges later were dropped, but both men resigned.
Oddly, many of the merchants who had been the victims of these break-ins defended Chief Sheffer, and a group of citizens began a recall movement against Gragson and City Commissioner Ed “Big Daddy” Fountain, who supported the removal of Sheffer and Kennedy. It fizzled, and Mazzuca ultimately was sent to prison for burglary.
Having satisfactorily resolved the mystery of the Shanghaied Admirals, Gragson immersed himself in planning the Fremont West Expressway, now part of U.S. Highway 95, and also called the Oran Gragson Expressway.
One proposed interchange was at Rainbow Boulevard. Twenty acres of land at the interchange was owned, coincidentally, by a group of speculators, the L&L Land Development Co., which had purchased the land in 1961 for some $50,000. The group consisted of Las Vegas Public Works Director Dick Sauer, City Planning Director Don Saylor, former City Commissioner Fountain, Chief City Right of Way Agent Dwight Engebregson, Nevada Industrial Commission Chairman Clarence Heckethorn, and local businessman Floyd Davis.
The acquisition, by the standards of the day, was not seen as improper. Sauer and Saylor spoke freely of their investment with reporters. But to Gragson, the deal reeked.
“Before anyone else knew anything about it,” recalls Gragson, “they were buying up choice pieces of property at the intersections. I didn’t think that was proper.” The mayor voted to fire Sauer and Saylor, but was overruled. Sauer claimed he had disposed of his interests in L&L. Actually he had attempted to sell the land, but had not been able to do so. When this came to light in 1974, he was forced to retire.
Gragson went on to devise and implement a code of ethics for all city employees.
In the election of 1959, Oran Gragson was not the favorite. He lacked political or governmental experience.
“One of the newspapers said I had about as much of a chance of being the first man to land on the moon as I did to be elected mayor of Las Vegas. I didn’t get hardly any votes from the Westside,” says Gragson. “About 19 votes, I think. Also, I was from the South, and I think a lot of voters over there assumed I was a bigot. The second time I ran (1963) I got 89 percent of the vote there.”
The reason for the surge in popularity was Gragson’s introduction of equal representation. “I considered the Westside as much a part of my responsibility as mayor as much as any other part of town.”
Gragson discovered there was a city fund earmarked for depressed areas. West Las Vegas, with its mostly unpaved, mostly unlit streets certainly fit the definition. “And the majority of that money went for improvements on the Westside,” says Gragson. “Some of my commissioners asked, `Why do you want to do this? You didn’t get any support over there.’ I just told him that if I broke my right leg, I wouldn’t put a cast on the left — in other words that was where the problem was.”
Three days before the 30th anniversary of his furniture store in 1967, Gragson closed it to devote his full attention to his mayoral duties. “I could not have done both as well as I did one,” he says simply.
And there was a big project on the horizon. The city had long outgrown its old City Hall. “I proposed to build us a City Hall a couple of years before we did,” says Gragson. “The commission didn’t approve it. Later we did build it. So what would have cost us $5 million then, wound up costing us $8 million when we did it.” Even so, he regards it as his single greatest accomplish- ment.
He proposed Cashman Field Center while mayor. And it was on Gragson’s watch that the city embarked on an ambitious park-building program, acquiring Lorenzi Park and Tule Springs, along with its artesian water well.
On July 4, 1962, Lt. Gov. Rex Bell, campaigning as a Republican candidate for governor, suddenly collapsed and died of heart failure. “When he died a group of us (Republicans) came together, knowing full well that it was almost impossible to beat Grant Sawyer,” says Gragson. In fact, he adds, the personable silent film star Bell probably couldn’t have defeated him.
“But we did want the Republican Party represented,” he says. Soon after that first meeting, Gragson ran into Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun at Bob Baskin’s Restaurant.
“He offered me his full support, and I suggested that he run, since he was better known statewide than I was,” Gragson recalls. Greenspun made a slicing motion across his lap and said, “Oran, you could cut my legs off right here, and I still wouldn’t run.” Two days later, Greenspun filed to run against him. Gragson won’t criticize Greenspun’s chicanery, but it is evident from the flash in his pale blue eyes the trick still rankles him.
“I think he wanted a primary to give him statewide exposure for a later run,” says Gragson. The publisher’s ploy failed. Gragson won the primary and, as expected, lost to Sawyer in the general election.
Gragson was elected to his third mayoral term (1967-1971) with no opposition, and it was during this term that the new City Hall was completed. He was challenged in the 1971 election by Bill Briare. Like nearly every campaign in which Gragson has been involved, it was a very civil contest. Briare recalls that the only issue he was able to raise was Gragson’s longevity in office.
“He was running for a fourth term, and I thought a fourth term back then should never occur,” said Briare. “That was the only issue I had because he had been such a good mayor that there was nothing much to talk about.” Briare lost, but was elected mayor in 1975 — with Gragson’s endorsement, and served for 12 years.
“I never thought I had all the answers,” Gragson says. “So I weighed every decision pretty thoroughly before I made it. And I hope I didn’t make too damn many bad ones.”
And he readily admits his biggest mistake.
“Not quitting after the third term,” he jokes.