John Ascuaga, the man who made John Ascuaga’s Nugget one of the best hotel-casinos in Reno-Sparks, has passed away. He was 96 years old.
Ascuaga served in the United States Army in his youth, receiving an honorable discharge, according to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Business Hall of Fame. He then went to the University of Idaho and Washington State University, where he earned degrees in accounting and hotel and restaurant management, respectively. While in college, he served as a hunter at an Idaho lodge, launching a career in the resort industry.
However, it wasn’t until Ascuaga moved to Sparks that he began what would prove to be the game’s meteoric rise in northern Nevada. At the time, Ascuaga was meeting Idaho native and gaming pioneer Dick Graves, who owned Dick Graves’ Nugget in Sparks. Back then, the Nugget was just a cafe that had a few slots and a signature burger, the “Awful Awful”.
Ascuaga would eventually take over the Nugget after Graves retired in 1960. He would transform the Nugget into a large hotel-casino in the decades to come with his wife Rose Louis, whom Ascuaga met at the Nugget’s steakhouse.
Rose Louise died on November 28 after a long illness, according to the family.
Former Sparks Mayor Geno Martini first met Ascuaga when he was 10 and was eating an Awful Awful burger at the Nugget. He and his family owned a ranch in Gardnerville next to the Ascuaga family and occasionally went to the Nugget in Sparks for lunch or dinner.
Ascuaga, in fact, was running around to check everything under Martini’s gaze.
“To me he was larger than life,” said Martini, who continued to work closely with Ascuaga when he was mayor of Sparks. He said he spent many hours and days in Ascuaga’s office talking about business.
Martini said Ascuaga shaped Sparks and impacted gambling in the state.
“He was highly respected and knew how to grow and grow,” said Martini, who learned of Ascuaga’s death Monday morning.
The last time Martini saw him was shortly before the Ascuaga family sold the Sparks property in 2013.
“He was doing what he always did and walking around and talking to everyone,” Martini said.
The fact that Ascuaga was able to build a successful gaming operation at Sparks outside of Reno’s more established downtown corridor was a remarkable achievement, said Ferenc Szony, CEO of Truckee Gaming. Szony, who was once the CEO of Sands Regency and was also an executive at the former Reno Hilton, believed Ascuaga was one of the key people who put Sparks into Reno-Sparks.
“He really believed in the idea of Reno and Sparks being together and helped make it happen,” Szony said. “It was really a plus.”
Sparks City Councilor Donald Abbott agreed. Abbott described Ascuaga as having helped raise the profile of Sparks and has been a major driver of the city’s economy.
“He’s employed a lot of my friends over the years,” Abbott said. “Sometimes it was their first job.
Despite his success, Ascuaga has always been approachable and could be counted on to help the community, according to Abbott.
“I remember growing up here in Sparks and seeing John roam the casino floors and he would engage with you and have a conversation with you,” Abbott said. “As a proud Sparks High School Railroader, I remember the countless scholarships he gave railroaders to make sure they would be ready for the next step after high school. “
Christine Johnson, executive director of the Sparks Heritage Museum, called Ascuaga the heart of Sparks, which left an impact that shaped northern Nevada.
“Historically, the Ascuaga family, for over half a century, has greatly contributed to the sense of family and belonging for which Sparks is known, and John Ascuaga was at the heart of that,” she said.
“A lot of what Sparks is doing today with downtown events the Ascuaga family has supported and started,” Johnson said. “He will be sorely missed in this community and has had a great impact on the game and the way we think about the game today.”
John Farahi, CEO and co-chair of Atlantis parent company, Monarch Casino and Resort, praised Ascuaga’s efforts to uplift the entire gaming industry in northern Nevada. Farahi recalls Ascuaga working tirelessly with the Nevada congressional delegation to improve the Interstate-80 corridor between Reno and Sacramento.
As the owner of a hotel-casino outside of the downtown hallway, Farahi appreciated Ascuaga’s advice and willingness to “cringe for someone like us who has just launched into the game ”, especially during the early years of Atlantis.
“He was definitely a pillar of our community,” said Farahi.
“I have enormous respect for him, his honesty and his integrity. He called him as he saw him and I, for my part, learned from him. He was a mentor. “
Ascuaga was also an active member of the Nevada Resort Association during his tenure at the helm of the Nugget, according to Farahi. The association described Ascuaga as a legend within the Nevada gaming industry after learning of his death.
Nevada Resort Association president Virginia Valentine called Ascuaga a tireless supporter of the industry and its community.
“His name is synonymous with Sparks and Northern Nevada because it has been a driving force in the evolution and expansion of the gaming and hospitality industry,” Valentine said in a statement. “Mr. Ascuaga will be remembered as one of Nevada’s visionary industry leaders and will be sorely missed.
Gary Carano, executive chairman of the board of Caesars Entertainment, called Ascuaga a “steadfast friend.” Carano credited Ascuaga with paving the way for the Reno-Sparks community we know today through their drive, innovation and generosity.
“Nevada has lost a true trailblazer, and the entire Carano family is deeply saddened by the loss of John Ascuaga,” said Carano. “And while the community has lost one of its pillars and the gaming industry has lost a trailblazer, those of us whose paths crossed John’s have lost a mentor, a leader and a great friend. . “
UNR President and former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval said John Ascuaga’s nugget was an indelible part of his memories, as were many locals. From Easter brunch with his parents as a kid and plenty of Awful Awful burgers to oyster bar dinners, the Nugget was a staple from childhood through adulthood.
Over the decades, Ascuaga has been a constant presence in the community, especially when it comes to Sparks, according to Sandoval.
“As someone who grew up in Sparks, I have known Mr. Ascuaga since the early 1970s and he was a legend,” said Sandoval.
“He was larger than life – a great personality, with a big heart who cared deeply for the community, his friends and family.”
This character is what people like Szony say they will remember most from Ascuaga. Whether you’re a Nugget employee or working for a rival company, Ascuaga would treat you like family and wouldn’t hesitate to listen or share advice, Szony said.
Szony recalled once during his tenure as president of former Reno Hilton, when one of his casino hosts moved to the Nugget. After the host began contacting Hilton guests, Szony’s advisers wanted to threaten legal action.
Szony, however, opted for a simpler solution. He called Ascuaga.
“I told John that I just needed to let him know what was going on and I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’ Szony said.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to worry about anything my son, I’ll take care of it.’ And he did. He took care of it the next day.
Ascuaga’s family approach was reflected at the Nugget during his tenure at the helm, where his children played key roles until the property was acquired by Marnell Gaming in 2016.
“It’s just the way they handled it – it was a very family run operation,” Szony said. “He was one of those guys like Don Carano and Barron Hilton who were classy performers who figured out how to make gambling a great business that you can invest in and feel good about.”
“He was a hell of a guy,” Szony added.
Ascuaga is survived by her children Camille, John, Michonne and Stephen.
Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Do you like this content ? Support local journalism with a RGJ digital subscription.