To many Nevadans, Ralph Lloyd Denton was a cherished native son for the unabashed civil rights battles the Las Vegas attorney fought when such efforts weren't popular.
To his children, he was the father they loved, the "sweetheart" who passed along those same values.
Denton died at age 86 on Friday night at home in Boulder City after a battle with cancer.
Services for Denton are at 10 a.m. Friday at the Guardian Angel Cathedral at 302 Cathedral Way in Las Vegas.
Sally Denton, the attorney's daughter, said she grew up in a home where everybody, no matter the color of their skin, was accepted and treated equally - values passed down to Denton from his parents. Denton also created waves in the political arena by fighting for environmental protections in the Sierra Nevada surrounding Lake Tahoe and advocating gun control regulations.
"It seemed like we were always going against the tide, but I was a little girl and didn't know what that tide was exactly," said Sally Denton, now a celebrated author. "He was standing up for things that were unpopular, but he made it popular in the minds of me and my brothers."
She said her grandparents took in several boarders in the small town of Caliente in the 1930s. One night, one of the boarders she hosted was a black man named Bill Roberson. Other boarders balked at the idea of dining with Roberson, but the Dentons didn't care and Roberson became a longtime family friend.
Years later, Roberson visited Ralph and Sara Denton in Las Vegas and treated Sally and her brothers, Mark and Scott, to ice cream at a downtown parlor. Only Roberson would hand them the money and remain outside. Sally said because of her upbringing, it took her years to understand why Roberson didn't accompany them inside.
"He was a fixture in our lives; we just knew him as Uncle Bill," Denton said. "We didn't realize he wouldn't come in because he couldn't come in. My dad used to let him drive us all around. We had no clue he was different."
Ralph Denton's liberal values remained consistent.
Denton was active in other Democratic Party campaigns, including the Nevada presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Jerry Brown.
While he helped others reach higher office, he appeared more comfortable outside of the spotlight.
Rather than becoming an partner in a large law firm, he opened a small private practice downtown and hired the city's first black legal secretary. During the 1950s, he was one of the few Las Vegas attorneys who took cases for the American Civil Liberties Union.
He worked with local West Las Vegas leaders such as Dr. Charles West, Dr. James McMillan, Dr. William "Bob" Bailey, and Alice Key.
But Denton gained respect from both sides of the political aisle.
"He was a unique individual," said former Clark County Commissioner and fellow Boulder City resident Bruce Woodbury. "He was a wonderful gentleman who was always fun to talk to because he had so many stories and insights."
In Denton's later years, Woodbury would give him a ride to his Las Vegas law office.
"Even though we were different (political) parties and had different political perspectives, I had respect for him and enjoyed our discussions. Not only on politics, we'd shoot the breeze about all kinds of things."
Denton was born in Caliente on Sept. 8, 1925.
His mother, Hazel Baker Denton, was a school teacher and member of the Lincoln County School Board. She served two terms in the Legislature in the 1950s, supporting civil rights and education reform. His father, Floyd "Babe" Denton, was a miner, saloon keeper and undersheriff of Lincoln County.
Ralph grew up shining shoes in a barber shop and working at his uncle's movie theater. He attended Lincoln County schools and played football and basketball and in the high school band. He attended the University of Utah for a semester before enlisting in the Army in 1943.
He served in the Army Air Corps until 1946 and then served at Arlington Hall Station, the headquarters for the Signal Intelligence Service cryptography effort in Arlington, Va.
There he met Sara Pittard, a civilian secretary from Paducah, Ky. She wouldn't go out with him until he resigned his commission because she didn't want to get involved with someone who made the Army his career. They were married in 1949.
"Had I not resigned, she would not have married me," he told the Review-Journal for its 1999 series on Las Vegas pioneers, "The First 100." "I would have missed a lifetime with the most magnificent and remarkable person I've ever known."
Before his military service, he'd worked as an elevator operator in the U.S. Senate. He returned to Capitol Hill under the patronage of Rep. Charles Russell and Sens. George Malone and Pat McCarran. Denton was one of the so-called "McCarran Boys," who finished their education by working part-time on jobs that the senator obtained for them.
Denton became close to McCarran, although he disagreed with the senator's views on international affairs and domestic threats.
"I learned he was a good man, an emotional man. His heart was on his sleeve," Denton said in the 1999 interview. "McCarran expected loyalty, but he gave full measure in return. Never did McCarran ever suggest that I adopt any kind of a political view or suggest that I should agree with his views."
Denton attended American University in Washington, D.C., on the G.I. Bill, graduating from law school in 1951. After law school, Denton returned to Nevada.
McCarran got him a job as a clerk for U.S. District Judge Roger T. Foley, then Denton moved to Elko and served as deputy district attorney to Grant Sawyer, another of the McCarran Boys.
Denton moved to Las Vegas in 1955 to practice law.
In 1958, he played a key role in Sawyer's first of several gubernatorial campaigns. Denton said, "How to describe my role? Friend and confidante, maybe. Henchman, maybe. Many perceived me as a henchman, bagman, tool, all of those things, but Grant and I knew what our relationship was, and it didn't make any difference what other people said. My underlying relationship was that of friend."
Denton also held office. He was district attorney of Esmeralda County and served two years on the Clark County Commission.
In 1964 and 1966, he challenged the re-election bids of Rep. Walter Baring, a conservative Democrat who opposed civil rights and Great Society legislation. Denton barely lost both times.
Denton and his family moved to Boulder City in 1959. He served as interim city attorney and wrote the city's ordinance mandating limited growth. He and his wife were active in the Boulder City Hospital Foundation, the Boulder City Chautauqua, Art in the Park, the Boulder City/Hoover Dam Museum, and numerous other activities, including finding a donor to keep the Boulder Dam Hotel open.
He is survived by his wife, Sara; son Mark, a Nevada District Court judge since 1998; Sally, the author of seven books, including "The Power and the Money," about the dark side of Las Vegas; and son Scott, a doctor who practices at University Medical Center.
"He was a sweetheart," Sally Denton said. "He was a special father. Family was everything to him.
Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at email@example.com or 702-387-2904.