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For Ruvo, brain institute honors dad and helps others avoid his fate

During an elevator ride Monday while checking out the unfinished Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, someone asked whether anyone had Alzheimer’s in their family. Out of six people in the elevator, I was the only one who hadn’t. Silently, I gave thanks. Cancer is my family’s foe.

That’s when the impact of what Larry Ruvo is trying to do to honor his late father hit home.

It’s not just about a building designed by Frank Gehry, a building unlike any other, and one people already either love or hate (put me in the first group).

It’s about a building where occupants will search for a cure for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.

That’s one of the pitches Ruvo made to the most famous living architect when he sought to persuade Frank Gehry to design the building.

"I told him: Use your celebrity to cure a disease," Ruvo said, recalling his efforts to convince Gehry, who had rejected other offers to design a structure in Las Vegas, before saying yes to Ruvo.

As with Ruvo, it was personal for Gehry.

Gehry became active in support of research for Huntington’s after the wife of a close friend died of it. The research efforts at the Brain Institute have now been expanded to include not just Alzheimer’s, but Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, all diseases of the brain.

While the building makes the institute unique on the outside, on the inside, there will be a long-term research study like no other. It is called Nevada Vital Aging Initiative. Thousands of adult volunteers who have Alzheimer’s in their families will be studied over decades in the first large-scale preventive study of its kind.

It’s a huge undertaking that originated from Ruvo’s father failing to get an accurate diagnosis for a year in Las Vegas, forcing the family to go out of state for an accurate diagnosis. Ruvo watched his mother’s health suffer while caring for his father. So the institute will offer services for caregivers too.

As managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada, Ruvo has made a few bucks pitching liquor. But he’s no Larry-come-lately to the world of philanthropy. Remember UNLVino, the popular 34-year-old fundraiser? Ruvo was the co-founder and remains the primary sponsor.

Ruvo has the money, the fundraising skills, the connections, the energy and the passion to honor his father by creating an institute that will be divided between serious research and diagnosis through brain imaging.

The strategy is to use the $65 million building to draw academic researchers, but also to draw tourists through the celebrity of the architect. Locals will be encouraged to use the Activities Room for celebrations such as weddings. All the profits of every aspect of the center will go back into research and clinical activities.

Ruvo founded his nonprofit Keep Memory Alive (www. keepmemoryalive.org) in his father’s honor in 1996, two years after the owner of the Venetian restaurant died and four years after he was diagnosed.

In 2004, Larry and Camille Ruvo and Bobby and Donna Baldwin announced they were committing $7 million for the project to be on the city’s 61-acre downtown redevelopment site. The design was unveiled in February 2006, and ground breaking was a year later.

Truly it takes a visual; words can’t do the building justice. One side consists of geometrical blocks inspired by a Moroccan village on a hillside; the other side combines the concept of a trellis with desert sand dunes. To see it for yourself, drive by the corner of Bonneville Avenue and Grand Central Parkway. You can’t miss it. Or watch a video tour at www.reviewjournal.com/media/video/lou_ruvo.html.

Critics have said the building’s trellis side might frighten people with brain disorders. Others just don’t like what they’ve observed, saying the building resembles "scrambled brains."

Not me. I’m a Gehry fan, even tried (but failed) to fit in a trip to Bilbao, Spain, to see his design for the Guggenheim Museum, which has turned Bilbao into a tourist destination, a powerful accomplishment for a building.

"I gave Frank Gehry the single most important thing in my life, the reputation of my father’s name," Ruvo said in another interview.

What a way to honor Dad … and help 10 million baby boomers likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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