Binion's Horseshoe Club was never known as a Salvation Army annex, but Benny Binion had a soft spot for the ragged Westside kids who would mill around behind his gambling hall.
They were always hungry, those children. And Benny -- the double-tough transplanted Texan who as a boy had been around plenty of dirt-poor folks before becoming known as the king of the Dallas gambling rackets -- always saw to it they received a hamburger before being shooed away.
Benny often dispatched his grandson, Key Binion Fechser, to distribute what often was the only hot meal of the day for the African-American kids.
It was by his grandfather's side a young Fechser, who died this past week at age 55 of an apparent heart attack, learned a life lesson. The lesson is simple, but profound: You never know when a good deed will be rewarded, so it's better to dot life's landscape with them like flower seeds. And if you happen to live as fast as Fechser, it never hurts to pray for a timely blossom.
It's the story Key's uncle, Jack Binion, first remembered after learning of Fechser's death during a visit to his son, T.J. Fechser.
Key was a free-spirited fellow who lived his life as fast as the law allowed and, in truth, a little faster. But he also knew the value of charity.
A few years after playing waiter to the unwashed little ones, Key found himself a guest of the government after one of many long nights of partying. He was thrown into a cell jammed with fellow imbibers, angle-shooters, hustlers, and ne'er-do-wells of the sort that end up frequenting the local lockup after midnight. Much to his consternation, this being the late '60s, Key found that he was alone and feeling intimidated in a cell full of African-Americans.
"Key was the only white guy in the drunk tank," Binion says. "He thought he was going to take a beating for sure.
"All of a sudden, a man stands up and says, 'Mr. Benjamin, Mr. Benjamin,'" close enough to Binion under the circumstances, "Don't you remember me? You used to give me hamburgers.'"
Key's fogged memory improved; of course he remembered.
Fechser was awarded a prized sleeping space complete with a blanket and pillow. Binion recalled, "Instead of having the hell knocked out of him, he said he had a good night's sleep. It's a typical Key story."
You don't know when good deeds will pay dividends, Binion says, so it's better just to do them.
"He was always doing something about half outrageous," he says, "but he was a good guy with a good sense of humor."
Fechser ran a lot of life's stoplights, rarely missed a party, and racked up more miles on his body than most.
"He was kind of a fast liver," says the understated Binion, who would probably describe Secretariat as kind of a fast runner. "He lived life to the fullest, you might say. He was an organ donor. Someone was just saying that if they opened up his body they'd say, 'We can't use these organs.' But the last 10 years or so he really behaved himself. He settled down.
"He was definitely marching to a different drummer. Today, most of Las Vegas is conformist. When you look back, the majority of people were not conformists."
No one ever accused Key Fechser of conformity.
He was a casino veteran in the Binion tradition, a loving father of his son T.J. and daughter, Fancy.
He helped the late Ted Binion move his silver fortune from the Horseshoe Club in 1998.
Key was an avid horseman and Meadows High School assistant football coach, who was well-read in literature and well-versed in politics.
"He had a lot of his grandpa in him," attorney David Chesnoff says. "He was a very pure spirit. He had a very strong value system that he lived by, and he was as loyal a friend as anybody could ever want. ... Key was especially good with young people, and he also had a unique ability to be friendly with all different kinds of people, from very sophisticated people to people who were down on their luck."
Fechser learned the lesson early.
That charitable streak paid off in this life, and can only help in the next one.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.