Honor, Courage and the Order of Law

Ralph Denton died July 6 at age 86. He was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known—not just because he took political risks like standing up for civil rights and defending unpopular clients and causes, or loved politics for the great game it should be, but because he lived a life so full of joy, love, principle and decency.

He was born in Caliente in 1925 and, except for the army and law school, he lived in Nevada all his life, because he loved this state.

He was raised by parents who believed we live to make society better. They were Democrats, and he became one. The theory in his Depression-era youth was that Republicans had money and jobs; Democrats needed both. But they also believed people had to work together, and government existed to help us all when we really needed it, regardless of party.

That’s why, going to law school in Washington, D.C., he got help—patronage jobs—from Republicans and Democrats alike. What mattered to them was that they were all Nevadans, regardless of party.

One of those Democrats was Sen. Pat McCarran. Ralph opposed McCarran’s anti-communist witch-hunt. Back home, he didn’t hide his feelings. But that didn’t bother McCarran. They were friends, and loyal: If one of them were in trouble, the other would be there. Ralph loved politics, but he knew it wasn’t everything.

After practicing law in Elko, Ralph moved to Las Vegas in 1955. He became involved in the civil rights movement, working with West Las Vegas leaders, and handling ACLU cases when few other attorneys would. What mattered to him was doing what was right, not what was popular.

Politically, he usually stayed behind the scenes. Without him, Grant Sawyer probably wouldn’t have been elected governor in 1958 and dragged Nevada into the 20th century. Ralph chaired John Kennedy’s campaign here in 1960, worked on more campaigns than anybody can count, and ran twice for Congress himself—not out of ego (he had none) but because he felt his opponent wasn’t doing his job and because he believed in service. Sawyer appointed him to the Clark County Commission, but he didn’t seek a full term because—get ready—he felt he had too many conflicts of interest to do the job properly.

All of us can learn from that—Ralph’s belief in doing good and doing it honestly. We also can learn from his family. He and Sara were a team in every imaginable way through nearly 63 years of marriage; theirs was a lifelong lesson in love. Three of their four children lived to adulthood and all became accomplished—Mark as a district judge (disclaimer: he performed my wedding); Sally as an author and a journalist (including great books on Las Vegas and the mob, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and, more recently, The Plots Against the President, which is history but might as well be the present tense); and Scott as a pediatrician and professor.

When Ralph proposed to Sara, word got to McCarran. He wanted to talk with Sara. He was pleased to learn they planned to move to Nevada. McCarran said the state couldn’t afford to lose its bright young people. Ralph and Sara agreed. And even in their 80s, they’ve been two of our brightest young people.

I met Ralph more than 20 years ago and, despite our age difference, we became close friends. When he learned that he was dying, he said, “What the hell. I’m 86.” But even as he reminisced about the past—there was no better storyteller; I did the interviews and editing for his oral history and will swear to that—he looked forward, always forward, hoping the state and the country he loved would do the right thing. What he considered the right thing and how others saw it might differ, he knew, and he would toast the difference.

So drink a toast to him, preferably a gin martini up or a margarita, if you don’t mind. Who wouldn’t want to have lived his life? And there’s always time to live his principles.