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Klondike owner remembered growing up hungry

Even on its best day no one would have mistaken the Klondike Hotel and Casino for a Strip mega-resort.

With its 153 rooms and 7,700 square feet of casino space, it was a decidedly humble gambling hall set on the south end of the Boulevard, a short stroll from the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. These days, some top resorts offer high-roller suites as large as the Klondike’s gambling hall.

The Klondike closed in 2006. Gone with it is its practically famous 99-cent spaghetti dinner special. Gone, too, just this past week, is the little casino’s equally unpretentious owner, John Woodrum. He was 76.

With his double-baritone voice and country boy charm, Woodrum was never the Strip’s biggest dreamer. It’s unlikely any profile writer ever called him a visionary. But imagine beginning life as a dirt-poor Kentucky sharecropper’s son who went hungry more times than he could count. Now tell me he wasn’t the most successful gambling titan on the Boulevard.

Woodrum was born in 1938 in Albany, six miles from the Tennessee line and a million miles from the lights of Las Vegas. Even today the sparsely populated Kentucky county is rock-ribbed by anyone’s measure.

Even as an ignorant teenager Woodrum knew he wanted more from life than scratching out a meager existence. He had to leave Albany behind.

He joined a carnival and worked all the games, learning about life on the road and picking up a feel for cards and dice. In no time, he was a capable hand in back-alley gambling games. Those skills eventually led him to Las Vegas.

After years in the legal gaming industry, he was able to purchase the Klondike from Ralph Engelstad. Woodrum went to work. His hands-on approach to the grind of the casino business was something that’s exceedingly rare in today’s world of 4,000-room hotels, celebrity restaurants, and high rollers who gamble the price of your house on a turn of the cards. Like his gambling hall, Woodrum was a throwback to a time when operators kept their chow cheap, their drinks flowing, and were on a first-name basis with their regular customers.

He also became a trusted adviser to a surprising number of successful casino executives, who appreciated his life experience and unpretentious approach.

“He was a great, great mentor,” longtime casino executive Danny Wade says. “He came from Kentucky with no financial means. He grew up in a tough environment. In Las Vegas, it was just the reverse. Even though at first he didn’t have a whole lot of money, he was a giver and a mentor beyond anything you can imagine. Although John was not scholastically educated, he was very knowledgeable, a great reader. He helped people like myself.”

Las Vegan Jerry Kring adds, “He was one of the dearest men that I’ve ever met. He worked himself up from a small town in Kentucky to become a casino owner in Las Vegas. When he walked in the joint, everyone was his friend, everyone was like extended family. The customers felt the same way about him. They called him big John.”

At the Klondike, winning a spaghetti dinner comp was as simple as asking for one. The place attracted a mostly older clientele that included many Social Security pensioners out for a good time. They found one there on the Strip in the shadow of some of the world’s greatest and gaudiest casino resorts.

Talk about a hands-on operator. Kring recalls Woodrum many times listing in minute detail the ingredients of his spaghetti sauce. It wasn’t gourmet, but his customers appreciated the fare whether they were money ahead or pinching nickels.

Offering inexpensive food wasn’t an accident, or merely a grind-joint marketing ploy.

“He told me about a lot of hungry nights,” son Michael Woodrum says. “He definitely came from humble beginnings. That’s why he was so grounded in life.”

Kring observes, “He always said he appreciated being able to help anybody who came through the door with a hot meal or a cup of coffee.”

From Albany to Las Vegas, John Woodrum never forgot where he came from.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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