Kenny Guinn was a man of vigor. In many ways, he was like a John Wayne character. Ruggedly handsome yet compassionate and quick-witted. Men wanted to be him. Women wanted to be with him.
He only wanted to be with Dema, his wife of 54 years.
The couple met when she was 5 and he was 7, two kids growing up in Exeter, Calif., a town of 5,000, where her dad was a city councilman and grocer. His dad was a sharecropper who couldn’t read or write.
They started dating when she was a high school junior. They married in Reno in 1956. She was a few days shy of 18, he was almost 20, just finishing his first year of college on an athletic scholarship. She worked office jobs to help support them.
A football and basketball player, Guinn knew the team is stronger than the individual. He and Dema formed a team for a lifetime. The athletic boy who picked fruit in the fields became a teacher, a school superintendant, a banker, a utility company executive and a $1-a-year UNLV president. Only then did he run for his first and only political job. Dema was always part of a package, always watching his back.
Dema said while he was handsome, she was attracted to him for another reason. “It was all his goodness,” she said Saturday in her first interview since his death. “He was so caring to his family and the community.” He told her early on, “I’m going to do something to help people.”
“I’ve never seen a more loving couple,” said Terry Murphy, who was the deputy campaign manager for Guinn’s 1998 gubernatorial effort and remained a close friend. During the campaign, she said, the schedulers had one unique instruction. The Guinns were not to be separated for more than 24 hours at a time.
In politics, power seems to endow even unlikely men with supposed sex appeal. Kenny Guinn was openly devoted to his wife. “In a world where relationships don’t mean as much as they once did, theirs was a rare and beautiful one where neither one wanted to be with anybody but the other,” Murphy said. “They beamed in each other’s presence. Their daily mission together was to make things better. To raise people up.”
Guinn’s biggest disappointment as governor, and thus Dema’s as well, is that he couldn’t persuade lawmakers to fix the state’s tax structure to add a business tax component to steady the unstable gaming and sales taxes, which fluctuated with the economy.
Pam and Joe Brown, who knew the Guinns for more than 40 years, had dinner with Guinn a week before he died at age 73, after falling from his roof. “He worshipped her, and vice versa,” Brown said. “I never heard a cross word between them.
“Kenny was in great spirits. We had our usual lively discussion about everything going on in town and politics.”
Guinn told the Browns of his deep concerns about the economy and Nevada’s unemployment. He mentioned he had some chores to do.
Brown said Guinn was unique. “He was totally, absolutely, 100 percent genuine. There was not a two-faced bone in his body. He told you what he thought. Despite his great achievements in life, he was just a decent, down-to-earth guy. He was just as nice to the porter as he was to the chairman of the board. He never forgot what it was like to be the poor guy.”
Guinn was the poor guy who won the heart of the pretty girl, never stopped loving her and wasn’t afraid to show it. You have to attribute some of his success to her. He always did.
Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison.