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Faith, humility sustain generous heart of Engelstad Family Foundation

In a community built by larger-than-life characters and glorified carnival barkers, this is the quietest big story I’ve written in a long time.

Between sips at Starbucks, Kris Engelstad McGarry politely tells me I won’t be interviewing the inspiring woman behind the Engelstad Family Foundation. Not today. Or, I suspect, on any other day.

The devoted daughter explains that Betty Engelstad is as shy and unassuming as she is thoughtful and generous. And that is saying quite a lot.

I might run into Betty one morning at a local Catholic church, McGarry says, sensing morning Mass isn’t on my regular circuit.

But her mother wouldn’t dream of talking to a reporter or basking in praise for the foundation’s increasingly generous gifts to Southern Nevada. It’s just not part of the North Dakota native’s character.

Most people recognize Ralph Engelstad as the curmudgeon who owned the Imperial Palace and died six years ago of lung cancer.

The contractor and casino man also was one of the largest real estate owners in the United States. Before he died, he set in motion a plan to create a foundation that would pour his family’s formidable assets back into the communities they call home.

The foundation, with more than $500 million in assets, already has donated more than $200 million in less than six years. That includes more than $80 million in donations and commitments in Southern Nevada.

Take Opportunity Village, for instance. The not-for-profit center for adults with intellectual disabilities is scheduled to receive $9 million to help expand its work programs and charitable events.

Opportunity Village’s latest fundraiser is the “You Are the Missing Piece” celebration at 6 p.m. Wednesday. It will also serve as the unveiling of the Ralph and Betty Engelstad Campus at 6050 S. Buffalo Road. (For further information: Barbara Molasky, 880-4005.)

At the Nevada Cancer Institute, the foundation donated $15 million and has committed an additional $20 million for lung cancer research and infrastructure.

On the Charleston Boulevard campus of the College of Southern Nevada, the foundation noticed the school’s promising cardio-respiratory program was essentially working out of an oversized closet with used equipment. It is in line to receive $8.2 million and eventually will be known as the Ralph and Betty Engelstad School of Health Sciences.

“It was such a no-brainer,” McGarry says. “Who could have gone through there and looked at that closet and not done it?”

There’s $10 million for the new Bishop Gorman High campus and $5 million for a new Boys and Girls Club facility, a long-term donation that will include annual college scholarships.

It’s just the start. There’s a lot more in the foundation’s pipeline, but the quiet giving is so unusual it made me wonder about the woman behind it all.

Betty worked in a bank as a young woman. With her husband, she spent almost every day of her adult life working within a budget. The Engelstad family wasn’t penurious, just prudent.

Now the money flows out even faster than it came in.

“She never thought in a million years she’d leave Grand Forks, North Dakota, and not work, and find herself giving money away — let alone this kind of money,” McGarry says.

“The buildings are great, but she doesn’t care about the buildings. She talks about doing ‘the right thing’ a lot. Her faith has sustained her. She is devout and very humble. She is the best person I know.”

At a September fundraiser for the Nevada Cancer Institute at the home of Joan and Jim Hammer, the foundation announced a $20 million donation. Naturally, Betty Engelstad didn’t attend the party. She didn’t want the attention.

“She loves the stories, but she’s really uncomfortable with people thanking her in person,” McGarry says. “I don’t think she knows what to do with gratitude.”

McGarry stands in her mother’s place and is unabashedly elated to watch the foundation change lives and help the community grow in the right direction.

“I have the greatest job ever,” she says. “I give away hope. There’s no greater job on Earth.”

As the interview ends, I’m left still wondering about Betty Engelstad, so quiet and humble in such a loud and obnoxious town. Then I smile at the thought of how this story will probably make the generous lady feel.

Sorry, Mrs. Engelstad.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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