Kris Engelstad McGarry

A philanthropist since she was a young girl investigating causes for her father, McGarry talks about humble beginnings, giving back and why Las Vegas is a great town

Unless you’re deeply involved with Las Vegas philanthropy, you may not recognize the Engelstad Foundation. It has no website, does no advertising and only has a four-person board. It doesn’t have the name recognition of “Wynn” or “Morton,” yet it has given about $80 million to Southern Nevada causes such as the Nevada Cancer Institute, Opportunity Village and Three Square food bank. Kris Engelstad McGarry has been the executor of her father’s philanthropy since she was a young girl investigating cases of need he noticed in the newspaper. Ralph Englestad came from a working-class family in North Dakota, but amassed a large fortune in Las Vegas, including owning the Imperial Palace. Engelstad set up his foundation in 2002, shortly before dying of lung cancer. He tasked his daughter and his wife, Betty, with running it.

Why is giving back so important for you?

It started with my parents. My parents came from a farming background, a working-class background, and it never really left them. So I think when they ended up becoming very fortunate and having a better life than they ever dreamed of in Las Vegas, that never left them. That was something that was really important to them and it was something I was brought up with. That’s what we’ve done. I think the important thing for us is if you find yourself in the position where you’re lucky enough to have your immediate needs met, then you start looking around at other people who don’t.

How was this instilled in you?

From little things. I would come home and find my dad, who would pick up stray dogs, and we would have dogs in our house. We had a girl that my dad had seen an ad in the paper for; she was in California and needed a kidney. He decided that he had earned enough money at that point and she came to live with us. He paid for her kidney transplant, and I think that was probably the first time I realized that we were in a position of reaching outside of our immediate family and doing something for other people. She lived in our house and he paid for her surgery and she stayed with us during dialysis and other treatment. There was a lifetime of that, where he would see things in the paper, people who needed assistance, and he would send me—I always went anonymously—just to check out their situation. Sometimes I would go back with money and sometimes I wouldn’t, but there was a lot of that in my life.

Your foundation isn’t very visible. Are you trying to be anonymous?

We thought about having a website at one point, but found that people had no trouble finding us. We have a really simple process. There are only four of us that sit on the board, and it’s only a one-page grant letter. We want to keep it simple; it’s not very convoluted in how to ask for money. We want to stick to the core of how my parents started it. A lot of it is medical research, it has to do with children, people with disabilities and education, and we get requests for very small amounts and we get requests that are quite large.

Are there any charities that hold a special place for you?

Opportunity Village, for sure. That was something that my dad gave to from the very beginning. The other one that has come to mean a great deal to us is the Nevada Cancer Institute. He passed away from lung cancer and I’m in the middle of breast cancer at the moment, so anything we can do to further medical research is important to us.

What would your father think of Las Vegas today?

I think he would be very disappointed, I’m sorry to say. He was very disappointed near the end of his life, which is why he wanted to get out of the hotel business; he saw it as becoming too corporate. He enjoyed the old Las Vegas where you knew everyone and you did things by a handshake and it was an understood agreement. He enjoyed that Las Vegas; he would not have enjoyed this one.

What are you most proud of in Las Vegas?

This sounds pretty contrary to how my dad would feel, but we’re very good friends with the Murrens and I’m really proud of what Jim’s done out at CityCenter. I think that he has a vision out there that’s really different, and I think his approach has been very different and unfortunately for him it came at the wrong time in the economy. I think if it had come at any other time it would have just been spectacular. When I look at it, I think he’s a visionary for this city. He’s brought some type of East Coast sensibility to this town.

Do you think we’ll ever be a great city?

I think we are a great city. We are very small town inside of a larger city. Where else could I grow up and know the sheriffs, the mayor and judges? What other city can you do that in? Who my children go to school with, I went to school with their parents. I think this is a great city. We just have gone through a lot of growing pains.

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