Ralph Denton moved with the aid of a walker through the state museum the other day, his wife and best friend Sara never far from his side.
Age and infirmity have robbed the spring from his step, but if Denton felt older than Kit Carson’s saddlebags he masked it well with a sunny demeanor and snappy summer suit. He was proud to attend the discussion of daughter Sally Denton’s latest book.
Scan the pages of Nevada history, and you might find his face in a black-and-white photograph focused on the state’s more celebrated politicians, the late Gov. Grant Sawyer chief among them. At 86, Denton is Nevada’s almost-famous man.
There was a time he might have become a member of Congress or even governor, but success at the highest levels of state politics eluded Denton. The Caliente native would become district attorney of Esmeralda County and also serve as a Clark County commissioner, but his most notable political contests were a pair of losses to Rep. Walter Baring, the conservative Democrat who opposed civil rights legislation.
Denton didn’t win, but his spirited primary fights against a fellow Democrat helped change the politics of race in Nevada at a pivotal time in the state’s painful progress. When it came to standing up for civil rights, Denton wasn’t always popular with his fellow citizens, but he was on the right side of history.
As a boy in Lincoln County, Denton earned extra money shining shoes at a barbershop near the Caliente train station. He learned at an early age what every successful shoeshine man knows: There is honor in making others look good.
Some years later, Denton did just that, helping Sawyer win the statehouse and facilitating victory for others in campaigns great and small. Back in 1960, Denton co-chaired the Kennedy-Johnson campaign for Nevada. Progressive Democrats always had a loyal supporter in their friend, Ralph.
Denton, meanwhile, seemed satisfied to celebrate others’ successes. He eschewed a partnership in a large law office for a diminutive practice downtown and hired the city’s first African-American legal secretary. In a law community known for its shark-skin suits, Ralph kept his bow tie straight and wore his ethics on his sleeve.
Others would pile up wealth, status and influence, but “that’s never been what Ralph’s been about,” observes College of Southern Nevada professor Michael Green, who worked on Denton’s oral history, “A Liberal Conscience.” “He didn’t want to be in a big firm, and that reflects his modesty. I really think it was just the desire to live the life he’s lived. He feels one of the best jobs in the world is to be a lawyer in your own office. He wanted to do that, make a living, and still make a difference.”
He accomplished all that and more.
While Las Vegas boomed, the Dentons would raise their three children in Boulder City. A small town was always big enough for Ralph and Sara. While others obsessed on their careers, the Dentons poured their energies into their community and their children. These days, daughter Sally is a celebrated author. Mark Denton is a district judge. Scott Denton is a pediatrician and professor at the University of Nevada School of Medicine. The community is a better place because the Dentons chose to live in it.
Had he only possessed a bigger ego, or a willingness to horse trade his liberal conscience for high office, Denton might have become well known as one of Nevada’s headline-hunting politicians, the sort who fill newspaper pages to bursting with their big ideas and bloviation. Thankfully, he instead decided to make a difference.
If there’s any justice still blowing on the desert breeze, Nevada history will long remember its almost-famous man and celebrate the example of his life.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.